Tag Archives: Wilderness Voyageurs

Driveable Adventures: Bike Tours Are Ideal Vacation Choice This Season

Biking the history-rich, scenic Delaware & Lehigh Trail (the D&L). Pocono Biking has a four-day, 142 mile guided inn-to-inn tour © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bike tours offer one of the best vacation alternatives in these times when people want to be outdoors in open spaces, and enjoy stunning landscapes, discover heritage and history and have that opportunity for shared experiences that travel uniquely provide. There is still time this season to take advantage of guided, self-guided and private bike tours from companies including Pocono Biking, Wilderness Voyageurs and Discovery Bicycle Tours.

Pocono Biking has space on departures this season on a supported four-day bike tour that takes you 142 miles of the Delaware & Lehigh rail trail, also known as D&L Trail.

I did this ride, anchored by the charming town of Jim Thorpe and the famous historic landmark at Washington Crossing, on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn, though with camping instead of inn-to-inn along this scenic and history-rich trail (railstotrails.org). The RTC trip also was operated by Pocono Biking, a powerhouse outdoors- adventure company in the area well known for its rafting adventures on the Lehigh River in the Lehigh Valley.

The trip, traveling through 57,600 acres (90 miles) of state park, is designed so you get to enjoy three of Pennsylvania’s award winning quaint small towns: Jim Thorpe, Bethlehem and New Hope. Essentially, we follow the route of Anthracite Coal, from mine to market, which thrust America into the Industrial Revolution. Along the way, we see the geography, the resources, and the technological innovations that made this possible, and how they affected the society, the culture, and the economy of the fledgling nation. The trail, part of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, is so historically significant that it is a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate.

Buttermilk Falls, along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, is a highlight of Day One’s ride through Lehigh Gorge State Park © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 1 – 36 miles: The adventure starts in the wilderness of the Lehigh Gorge State Park, riding passed waterfalls and spotting wildlife (deer!), taking advantage of the newly connected D&L Rail Trail into the charming town of Jim Thorpe.  The first night is spent amid mountains in the Inn of Jim Thorpe, circa 1849.

A poster of Native American Olympian Jim Thorpe hangs in the Jim Thorpe Inn, in the town that was renamed for him © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Jim Thorpe – an odd name for a town – was established in 1818 as Mauch Chunk, which means “Mountain of the Sleeping Bear,” the name the Lenni Lenape Indians gave to the nearby mountain. But it was later renamed for an Oklahoma-born Native American, the Olympic hero Jim Thorpe, who is buried there. Thorpe was born in Oklahoma in 1888 and raised on the Sac and Fox Reservation and had never set foot in the borough.  But Patsy Thorpe, Jim’s third wife, cut a deal with two struggling towns in Pennsylvania, that if they would merge, rename themselves Jim Thorpe and build a memorial to honor him, she would present them his remains for burial.

The town played a key role in the emergence of the United States as an Industrial Revolution powerhouse. Here, entrepreneurs led by Josiah White formed the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company in the 1820s (you can still see the brick building), which shipped tons and tons of anthracite coal and other goods to market via the Lehigh and Delaware Canals which they constructed. The town grew in importance when it was named Carbon County’s seat in 1843.

Asa Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe, PA © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

A major attraction here is the Packer Mansion, which I was lucky enough to visit on my trip. Asa Packer’s story epitomizes the rags-to-riches-for-those-with-grit-and-a-good-idea American Dream: Born poor in Mystic, Connecticut, Asa Packer (1805-1879) left home when he was 17, setting out on foot to Brooklyn, Pennsylvania where he apprenticed as a carpenter to his cousin, Edward Packer. In 1828, he married Sarah Minerva Blakslee (1807-1882) and the couple tilled a farm they rented from Sarah’s father.  But after four years, they were just as poor as when they started. So hearing that men were needed to captain coal barges on the Lehigh Canal, Asa traveled to Mauch Chunk, in the winter of 1832. He used his skill as a carpenter to build and repair canal boats. He resettled his family in Mauch Chunk and became the owner of a canal boat that carried coal to Philadelphia, then opened his own firm, A. & R. W. Packer, which built canal boats and locks for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company.  

He tried to get the company to build a railroad, but was refused. So, in October 1851, risking financial ruin, Packer purchased nearly all the controlling stock and interest for the unfinished Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad (later known as the Lehigh Valley Railroad).  By November, 1852, he expanded the railroad from Mauch Chunk to Easton, Pennsylvania, in exchange for the company’s stocks and bonds, and later into New York State. 

He became the third richest person in the world and parlayed his business success into political success, serving as a Judge, a state representative, a two-term Congressman (1853-7), and even challenged Ulysses S. Grant for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1868. He narrowly lost election to become Pennsylvania’s Governor in 1869.

The Packers settled in their Italianate Villa in Mauch Chunk in 1861 and, to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, on January 23, 1878, held a fantastic gala (a newspaper printed in gold described it, and the man who performed their wedding attended). Asa died just 18 months later.

Biking the Delaware-Lehigh Trail © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

This quaint village is a hub for many marvelous attractions including the Packer Mansion; the Old Jail Museum (the eerie dungeon where the Molly McGuires were jailed; Cell 17 with its mysterious handprint on the wall, under the gallows on which seven of the accused Molly Maguires were put to death); the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, St. Mark’s Church, Historic Stone Row, the Mauch Chunk Opera House, Anita Shapolsky Art Center, Mauch Chunk Museum, plus wineries and distilleries (Big Creek Vineyard and Stonekeep Meadery), biking, hiking and rafting.

Jim Thorpe Visitors Center, 2 Lehigh Ave., Jim Thorpe PA 18229, 570-325-3673, jimthorpe.org.

Day 2 – 37 miles:  After a night exploring the shops, museums and restaurants in Jim Thorpe and breakfast at the Inn, cycle beside the locks and canals along the Lehigh River to the town of Bethlehem, PA. Along the way you pass the Lehigh Gap Nature Center with its protected land. There are stunning views of the Blue Mountain and Appalachian Trail. Bethlehem, circa 1741, an old Moravian settlement, has cobblestone streets, quaint shops, and history around every bend.  Spend the night in the Hotel Bethlehem where Presidents and dignitaries have stayed.

Biking the Delaware-Lehigh Trail © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Lehigh Gap Nature Center, a non-profit conservation organization at the foot of the Kittatinny Ridge, is dedicated to preserving wildlife and habitat through conservation programs such as the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge, educational programs such as the Kittatiny Raptor Corridor Project as well as research. I linger in the butterfly garden before setting out again on the trail. (8844 Paint Mill Rd, Slatington, PA 18080, 610-760-8889, http://lgnc.org/)

Along the way, we come upon what is left of the original canal locks – stone walls, wooden gates with metal latches and gears, remnants from the mid-1800s. 

Historic Freemansburg, on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

At Freemansburg, we find a lockmasters house, the remains of the locks and a mill, which, when I visited, was manned by interpreters in period dress. I wonder whether the village was settled by freemen and am told that it was named for one of the original settlers, Richard Freeman.

Freemansburg is a classic example of a canal town with houses and structures built up against the waterway that was the village’s lifeblood in the 1800s. Members of the Old Freemansburg Association (OFA) reclaimed a 1.5 mile section of the Lehigh Canal the Borough owns from overgrowth and debris and restored the towpath which became the D&L Trail. The OFA spearheaded efforts to protect and restore the 1829 Locktender’s House, mule barn, Lock No. 44, gristmill, and coal yard. Volunteers also reconstructed the barn using canal era tools and equipment, a project that took 10 years to complete. The multi-functional building now hosts weddings, educational sessions and interpretative demonstrations. (http://lehighvalleyhistory.com/history-of-the-borough-of-freemansburg)

Riding on, we come to an island that consists of a shuttered steel mill that today stands somewhat surreally like an abstract sculpture.

Bethlehem, PA: A shuttered steel mill looks like abstract sculpture © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 3 – 47 miles: After breakfast, the group departs Bethlehem and cycles south following the path of 19th century aqueducts to the confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers. Visit the only operating mule drawn canal boat east of the Mississippi. Tour the National Canal Museum and pass through quaint river villages, until arriving in New Hope. New Hope offers bustling nightlife and cultural attractions such as the Bucks County Playhouse.

Two mules pull the Josiah White II canal boat at the National Canal Museum in Hugh Moore Park © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor interprets this fascinating period of American history in the 520-acre Hugh Moore Park through tours of the National Canal Museum and rides on the 110-passenger Josiah White II canal boat. Here you see remnants of the oldest industrial park in the region, a Locktender’s House and one of only three mule-drawn canal boats still operating in America, which plies a two-mile section of the canal that has been restored. The National Canal Museum, with hands-on exhibits highlighting 19th century canal life and technology, normally is open from June until October. (https://canals.org/)

Day 4 – 22 miles:  On day four, after breakfast at the Fox and Hound Bed & Breakfast, ride along the canal trail to Washington Crossing where George Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776.  You also cross the Delaware to the D&R Canal State Park and head north to Bull’s Island where the ride ends with lunch before being shuttled back to your car. 

Washington Crossing Historic Park, 1112 River Road, Washington Crossing, PA 18977, 215-493-4076, www.WashingtonCrossingPark.org.

A bike tour, whether guided or self-guided, is an ideal vacation choice this season © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Available dates at this writing include Sept. 14 and Oct. 5 (up to 14 guests per trip, with 2 guides; the minimum age is 13; e-bike rentals are available, but the trail is easy/moderate crushed gravel trail). The cost is $995 ($225 single supplement); $90 to rent a bike, and includes the overnight accommodations, professional bike guides; sag wagon; basic bike repair (replacement bike if needed to complete the ride); rest stops with snacks and water; breakfast on three days; lunch on two days; luggage transportation to each accommodation; morning trail briefings and transportation back to your car by 4pm on the final day.

If you would rather DIY, Pocono Biking also offers daily rates and shuttle service, Big Day Out & Big Night Out (Multisport Adventures), two-day trips, and Pocono Whitewater Rafting on the Lehigh River.

Pocono Biking, 7 Hazard Square, Jim Thorpe, PA, 570-325-8430, PoconoBiking.com.

Other bike tours available this season:

Wilderness Voyageurs, operating out of Ohiopyle, PA, is offering New York Erie Canal Bike Tour (4-days,Sept. 21); Great Allegheny Passage Bike Tour (4-days, Sept. 21, 28, Oct. 5), Easy Rider GAP Bike Tour (3-days,  Sept. 9).

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage Rail Trail, operated by Wilderness Voyageurs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Other upcoming tours: Michigan Islands, Trails & Dunes Bike Tour  (8/30); Cycle Colorful Colorado Bike Tour (9/13); Katy Trail Missouri Bike Tour (9/27, 10/18) and
Kentucky Bike & Bourbon Bike Tour (10/19).

“Bike touring lends itself to a vacationing style that uniquely fits these times: small groups and big open spaces! Although we understand that traveling at this moment is not for everyone and is a personal decision, our goal is to minimize the risks where possible and make traveling as comfortable as possible.”

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

Discovery Tours is inviting biking enthusiasts to design their own tour: “Pick any of our U.S. locations — or suggest a new one — and we’ll customize an incredible biking vacation just for you.”

Groups of 8 or more get one tour free (or spread the savings across the group). Special pricing is available for groups of 4 or fewer.

Biking with Discovery Tours in Woodstock, Vermont © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The company, based in Woodstock, Vt., has already run private tours this summer on the Mickelson Trail and Black Hills in South Dakota, in Maine and in New York’s Finger Lakes.

For details, contact Scott (scott@DiscoveryBicycleTours.com), info@discoverybicycletours.com, 800-257-2226, discoverybicycletours.com.

Find more trails through Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2121 Ward Court, NW, Washington, DC 20037, 866-202-9788, railstotrails.org, TrailLink.com.

______________________

© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Mount Rushmore, Finale to 6-Day Wilderness Voyageurs South Dakota ‘Badlands & Mickelson Trail’ Bike Tour

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum wrote of Mount Rushmore, “The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s our last day of the Wilderness Voyageurs six-day “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour of South Dakota, when we would have biked back a portion of the Mickelson Trail that we cycled yesterday before visiting Mount Rushmore. But as luck would have it (and it is actually lucky), it rains as we leave Deadwood. It is lucky because the rest of our rides have been glorious and we did get to complete the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, in addition to riding through Badlands National Park and Custer State Park. Our guides, James Oerding and John Buehlhorn, offer us alternatives: instead of doing the Mickelson 18 miles from Dumont to Mystic (the same trail we did yesterday but downhill) we go directly to Mount Rushmore and see if the weather dries out.

Mount Rushmore is such a familiar American icon, it may be a cliché. But seeing it “in person” makes you rethink what it is all about.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, wrote “Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.”

Borglum also wrote, “The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.”

The National Park Service offers this about Mount Rushmore National Monument: “Majestic figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota, tell the story of the birth, growth, development and preservation of this country. From the history of the first inhabitants to the diversity of America today, Mount Rushmore brings visitors face to face with the rich heritage we all share.”

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The NPS posits that Borglum “selected these four presidents because from his perspective, they represented the most important events in the history of the United States. Would another artist at that time, or perhaps a modern artist choose differently? As you read more about Borglum’s choices, think about what you might have done if the decision was up to you.”

I stumble upon a 15-minute Ranger talk in the Sculptor’s Studio about Gutzon Borglum, the carving process and the lives of the workers – how they dynamited away 90 percent of the stone, leaving just 3 to 6 inches of material to chisel off by hand, how they hang a weight to where the nose should be and create the facial features from that reference point.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Ranger stands in front of a model of how a completed Mount Rushmore was envisioned by Borglum. Who knew there was more? I’ve always taken for granted that what we see was all that was meant to be. The model shows that it would have had their jackets down to their waist and hands.

To see the scale of the sculpture, it is hard to contemplate the challenge of blasting away all that rock and carving that stone. But we learn that getting this project underway was a challenge unto itself.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

South Dakota historian Doane Robinson is credited with conceiving the idea of carving the likenesses of noted figures into the mountains of the Black Hills of South Dakota in order to promote tourism in the region. But once Doane Robinson and others had found a sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, they had to get permission to do the carving. Senator Peter Norbeck (the man who created the Needles Highway through Custer State Park) and Congressman William Williamson were instrumental in getting the legislation passed to allow the carving. The bill requesting permission to use federal land for the memorial easily passed through Congress. But a bill sent to the South Dakota Legislature faced more opposition.

Robinson’s initial idea was to feature heroes of the American West, such as Lewis and Clark, Oglala Lakota chief Red cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody. But Borglum wanted the sculpture to have broader appeal, so chose the four presidents, who would each symbolize an important aspect of American history. (That might be why Robinson was not chosen for the 12-member commission to oversee the project.)

Early in the project, money was hard to find, despite Borglum’s guarantee that eastern businessmen would gladly make large donations. He also promised South Dakotans that they would not be responsible for paying for any of the mountain carving. Borglum got Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon on board, but only asked for half of the funding he needed, believing he would be able to match federal funding ($250,000) dollar for dollar with private donations.

Borglum worked on the project from 1927, the presidents’ faces were carved from 1933-1939, with his son, Lincoln. Meanwhile, in 1929, the stock market crashed; in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt placed Mount Rushmore under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

In March, 1941, as a final dedication was being planned, Gutzon Borglum died. This fact, along with the impending American involvement in World War II, led to the end of further carving on the mountain. With the money – and enthusiasm – running out, Congress refused to allocate any more funding. On October 31, 1941, the last day of work, Mount Rushmore National Memorial was declared a completed project.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Ranger explains that the death of the artist raised an ethical issue for anyone who would take over the work. And, the Ranger said, “The country had moved on. They were not as interested in presidents as they were in the 1930s; when Mount Rushmore was a shrine to democracy. And what if the new artist made a mistake?”

I can see how Mount Rushmore was a cautionary tale for the Crazy Horse Memorial and why sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who worked on Mount Rushmore before being tasked to do Crazy Horse, refused any federal funding, instead establishing a foundation funded with private donations and admissions. Some 70 years after he began his work, his grandchildren are involved in continuing to carve the memorial.

View of Mount Rushmore from the Presidential Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I walk the Presidential Trail (just 0.6 miles long, 422 stairs, weather permitting) to get up close and personal with the mountain sculpture and perhaps glimpse some of the area wildlife.

Some 3 million visitors come to Mount Rushmore each year.

Among the activities offered:  the Junior Ranger program (booklets are available at the information desks for ages three to four, five to twelve and 13 and up), and the Carvers’ Café, Ice Cream Shop  and Gift Shop.

Also:

Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village (10 – 30 mins., free): Explore the history of the Black Hills and the American Indian tribes who have populated this land for thousands of years. Located next to the Borglum View Terrace for 2019, this area highlights the customs and traditions of local American Indian communities. Open 10:30 am to 3 pm,  early June through mid-August, weather permitting.

Youth Exploration Area (10 – 30 mins., free): Explore the natural, cultural and historical aspects of Mount Rushmore with interactive programs. Located at the Borglum View Terrace for 2019. Open early June through early August.

Self-Guided Tour (30 – 120 mins; rental fee): Rent an audio tour wand or multimedia device to hear the story of Mount Rushmore through music, narration, interviews, historic recordings and sound effects while walking a scenic route around the park. Available at the Audio Tour Building across from the Information Center (rentals available inside the Information Center during the winter months). The tour and accompanying brochure are available in English, French, German, Lakota, and Spanish.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It had been gray and drizzly when we first arrived making the monument look dull, but as we are leaving, blue sky breaks through and for the first time, I realize that George Washington has a jacket.

(During our visit, the Visitor Center and amphitheater are closed for construction.)

(Just recently, the last living Mount Rushmore construction worker, Donald ‘Nick” Clifford, who worked on the monument from 1938-40, passed away at the age of 98.)

(Mount Rushmore, 13000 Highway 244, Keystone, SD 57751,  605-574-2523, www.nps.gov/moru/index.htm)

Even thought the weather has cleared up just as we are leaving Mount Rushmore, because it is a getaway travel day, the group decides not to bike (the trail James suggests is impractical because it requires the guides to take off the roof racks in order to fit through the tunnel). We decide instead, to go straight to Rapid City, our departure point, for lunch before we all go our separate ways.

Rapid City, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

Our last lunch together, in Rapid City, is at Tally’s Silver Spoon (best Reuben sandwich outside of NYC!) – just across the street from the historic Alex Johnson Hotel, where I began my South Dakota odyssey a week ago.

What I love best about Wilderness Voyageurs’ “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour are the varied experiences: Badlands – fossils – Circle View Guest Ranch – Black Hills – Crazy Horse – Custer State Park – stone spires – wildlife – buffalo – Blue Bell Lodge – Mount Rushmore – biking the 109-mile long Mickelson rail trail.

Guided bike trips are not cheap, but what I look for is value for money – my test is whether I could reproduce the trip for less out-of-pocket, to make up for the decided increase in convenience of having the itinerary already plotted out. I found Wilderness Voyageurs excellent value – in the services provided, wonderful accommodations (especially the guest ranch and the lodge), dining, creating an itinerary that was idyllic, entrances to attractions (Badlands National Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, Mount Rushmore), and also considerate, superb guides, a relaxed, unpressured atmosphere (“You’re on vacation!”).

The destination, South Dakota, is quite sensational and unexpectedly varied – spectacular scenery, nature and wildlife, fossils (!), culture and history – a microcosm of North America, really. Indeed, it is an ideal destination for international visitors to plunge into the American frontier west mythology of the past, but more interestingly, to see the American West as it is today.  And frankly, even if I rented a bike and paid for shuttle services, I couldn’t have duplicated the itinerary, or the camaraderie, or the expertise and care.

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

_________________________

© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Biking through the Badlands is Voyage of Discovery Millions of Years in the Making

Badlands National Park, South Dakota is 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires and the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

My first look at Badlands National Park is not anything I expected or visualized. The Pinnacles entrance to the national park, where the Wilderness Voyageurs guides have taken us for our first ride of the six-day “Badlands and Black Hills” bike tour of South Dakota, is aptly named for the spires that form this otherworldly landscape.

Badlands National Park is 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires and the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States. The Badlands Wilderness Area covers 64,000 acres, where they are reintroducing the black-footed ferret, the most endangered land mammal in North America. Just beyond is The Stronghold Unit, co-managed with the Oglala Sioux Tribe where there are sites of the 1890s Ghost Dances. But as I soon learn, Badlands National Park contains the world’s richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds, dating 23 to 35 million years old, a period between dinosaurs and hominids.

Badlands, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The name “Badlands” was intentional, for the earliest inhabitants and settlers found the extremes of climate and landscape extremely harsh. The American Lakota called this place “mako sica,” or “land bad” and early French trappers called it “les mauvaises terres a traverser,” both meaning “badlands.” Those very same French trappers would be the first of many Europeans who would, in time, supplant the indigenous people, as they were soon followed by soldiers, miners looking to strike it rich with gold, cattlemen, farmers, and homesteaders recruited from as far away as Europe.

We get our bikes which our guides – James Oerding and John Buehlhorn – make sure are properly fitted, and outfit us with helmet, water bottle, Garmin. They orient us to the day’s ride – essentially biking through the national park on the road (“Don’t stop riding as you go over the cattle guards”; when the van comes up alongside, tap our helmet if we need help or give a thumbs up otherwise). We will meet up at the 8.2 mile mark where there is a nature walk and the van will be set up for lunch. 

Setting out on our Wilderness Voyageurs bike trip through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And then we are off at our own pace down an exquisite road (the cars are not a problem). That is a mercy because the vistas are so breathtaking, I keep stopping for photos. And then there are unexpected sightings – like bighorn sheep.

At the 8.2 mile mark, we gather at the van where James has set out a gourmet lunch.

There is a boardwalk nature trail (I note the sign that warns against rattlesnakes and wonder about the kids who are climbing the mounds with abandon). I realize I am in time for a talk with Ranger Mark Fadrowski, who has with him original fossils and casts of fossils collected from the Badlands for us to look at and touch. We can see more – and even scientists working at the Fossil Prep Lab – at the Visitor Center further along our route.

Badlands, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“There are no dinosaurs here,” Ranger Fadrowski explains. “This area was underwater when dinosaurs lived.” But these fossils – gathered from 75 million years ago and from through 34 to 37 million years ago (there is a 30-million year gap in the fossil record), fill in an important fossil record between dinosaurs and hominids (that is, early man). Teeth, we learn, provide important information about the animal – what it ate, how it lived – and the environment of the time.

Ranger Mark Fadrowski gives a talk on the fossils found at Badlands National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Pierre Shale, the oldest layer when this area was under a shallow sea, is yielding fossils from 67-75 million years ago. He shows us a fossil of a Mosasaur, giant marine lizards, an ancestor of the Komodo dragon, and one of the biggest sea animals.

 “We don’t have fossils from the 30-million year gap – either the sediment was not deposited or it eroded.” Indeed, we learn that these tall spires of rock with their gorgeous striations, are eroding at the rate of one inch each year, and will be completely gone in another 100,000 to 500,000 years. But the erosion also exposes the fossils.

The environment changed from a sea to a swamp during the Chadron Formation, 34-37 million years ago. “That was caused when the Rocky Mountains formed, with a shift in Teutonic plates. That pushed up and angled the surface so water drained into the Gulf of Mexico.” It was formed by sediments carried by streams and rivers flowing from the Black Hills, deposited in a hot and humid forest flood plain.

Alligators lived during this time. The alligator fossils found here show that the animal hasn’t changed in 30 million years. The alligators migrated when the environment changed, so survived.

During the Brule Formation, 30-34 million years ago, this area was open woodlands, drier and cooler than during the Chadron Formation; in some areas, water was hard to find. Animals that lived here then include the Nimravid, called “a false cat” because it seems to resemble a cat but is not related. The specimen he shows was found by a 7-year old girl just 15 feet from the visitor center and is the most complete skull found to date (imagine that!); there are two holes in the skull that show it was killed by another Nimravid. Also a three-toed horse (now extinct); and a dog.

Many hikers in Badlands National Park have found fossils right on the trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In fact, it turns out it is not at all unusual for visitors to the park to come upon important fossils (there is a whole wall of photos of people and their finds just from this year). In fact, one visitor, Jim Carney, a photographer from Iowa, found two bones sticking up and reported the location. “They thought it would be a single afternoon. It turned out to be a tennis-court sized field, now known as the Pig Dig; the dig lasted 15 summers and yielded 19,000 specimens, including the “Big Pig.”

Fossil of “The Big Pig” is displayed at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It was found at the beginning of the Brule Formation, when the area was drying out. “We believe it was watering hole drying up. Animals caught in the mud were prey for other animals.”

This is a place of Archaeotherium, Oredonts, Mesohippus, Subhyracodon, Hoplophoneus, Metamynodon, Cricid and Paleolagus.

The Sharps Formation, 28-30 million years ago, is where they have found Oreodont fossils. “The name means ‘mountain teeth’ because of the shape of its teeth, not the environment.” Fossils are identified mostly because of teeth which are most common to survive and reveal clues about behavior and what the animal ate, which speaks to the environment.

He shows us the fossil of an Oviodon. “It is weird, there isn’t anything alive like it. The closest relative is camel – like the weird cousin that no one knows how related. It is the most commonly found fossil – which means it was probably a herd animal.” And a Merycoidodon (“ruminating teeth”), which he describes as “a sheep camel pig deer”.

“The Badlands are eroding, so will reveal more fossils. Fossils are harder than rock, so won’t erode as fast.” Interestingly, only 1% of all life is fossilized. “We have to assume there are missing specimens.”

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Badlands “is particularly lush for fossils – because of the types of sediment that preserves them well.– 600,000 specimens have been collected from the Badlands since paleontologists first started coming here in the 1840s. Just about every major institution in the world has specimens that were originally found here, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

They provide clues to the “Golden Age of mammals – half-way between when dinosaurs ended and today – horses, camels, deer.”

I had no idea.

I’m so grateful that John (elected the sweeper for today’s ride) has not rushed me away and, in fact, waited patiently without me even realizing he was there.

Wilderness Voyageurs lunch stop on our ride through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I continue on, stopping often to take photos of the extraordinary landscape with its shapes and textures and striations. I barely miss a dead rattlesnake on the road (I think it was dead) and am too rattled to stop and take a photo.

I get to the Visitor Center which has superb displays and an outstanding film (must see). Again, no one is rushing me away, so I stay for the film, “The Land of Stone & Light”.

Native Americans have been in this area for 12,000 years; the Lakota came from the east around 1701 following buffalo, their culture was so dependent on buffalo. “They would pray for the buffalos’ well being” rather than their own.”

Treaties were signed that defined the borders, but they were broken. The white settlers demanded more and more of the Indian land, especially after gold was discovered in the Black Hills. (I later learn it was William Custer, the famous General of Custer’s Last Stand, who discovered the gold.)

Buffalo were at the center of Lakota culture © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The buffalo – so precious to the Lakota – were hunted nearly to extinction. The white men put up fences for their ranches and farms, preventing the buffalo from migrating. “What happens to the buffalo, happens to Lakota” – they were forced to cease their traditional life, settle down and farm or ranch. Resistance led to tragedy (Battle of Wounded Knee). (There is a photo of the Wounded Knee Massacre at the Trading Post.)

By the turn of the 20th century, the federal government was inviting homesteaders to come out and settle the West – they would get 160 acres if they could last five years on the land. They advertised abroad, enticing immigrants to “the luscious plains in the Dakotas.”

Lumber and stone was rare in the Badlands, so the settlers built their shanties of sod, called “sodbusters.”

“Living was hard; small-scale farming couldn’t succeed. They endured blistering summers, cruel winters, extreme wind. Many left” especially in the Great Depression. I think how ironic.

“Before the Lakota, before the dreams of homesteaders ended, paleontologists came here 150 years ago.” The layered landscape of the Badlands told the story of geologic change, of climate change, that is still continuing. The Badlands are eroding fast – at the rate of one inch per year, “so in 100,000 to 500,000 years, all will be gone. The earth is a dynamic and changing system.”

Badlands National Park is 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires and the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The ecology is complex. This is a mixed grass prairie – it may look dry, but the tangled roots store nutrients. Animals help sustain it –the bison churn up the soil, mixing the moisture and scattering seeds; prairie dogs are critical to the ecosystem, too – they also stir up the soil, and the burrows they dig are used by other animals like owl and ground squirrel. The black footed ferret lives in abandoned burrows and also eats prairie dogs.

The farmers’ attempt to eliminate prairie dogs resulted in the near-extinction of black-foot ferret. They have been reintroduced; also swift fox, bighorn sheep.

Coming upon longhorn sheep during our ride through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The mission of National Parks is to preserve and restore – but we can’t restore the biggest animals that once were here – the prairie wolf and grizzly bear.”

I’m about to leave when I stumble upon the Paleontology Lab, which is open to the public, where we can watch as two paleontologists painstakingly work to remove sediment from bone – their efforts magnified on a TV screen.

Visitors can watch as a paleontolgist works painstakingly to release fossilized bone from rock at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“I am working on a Merycoidodon, an oreodont, which is a group of hoofed mammals native to North America,” the sign says in response to what must be the zillionth time a visitor asks. “Although they have no living relatives in modern times, oreodonts are related to another native North American mammal: the camel. Oreodonts are sheep-sized and may have resembled pigs, but with a longer body, short limbs and with teeth adapted for grinding tough vegetation. The skulls of Merycoidon have pits in front of the eyes, similar to those found in modern deer which contain scent glands used for marking territory. Oreodonts lived in herds and may at one point have been as plentiful in South Dakota as zebras are in the African Serengeti.”

But the paleontologists are happy to answer questions, too. One tells me she has part of an ear canal (very unusual) and ear bones. “It’s unusual to have the upper teeth. This is a sub-adult –I can see wisdom teeth and unerupted teeth.” She is working on a Leptomerycid – relative of mouse deer – an animal the size of house cat.

It has taken her 170 hours to extract teeth from rock.

“This is the second time anyone got an upper row of teeth for this species. It may change scientists’ understanding. We’re not sure if it is a separate species – it has a different type of tooth crown. But having a second fossil means we can compare.”

Visitors can watch as a paleontolgist works painstakingly to release fossilized bone from rock at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just then, the senior paleontologist, Ed Welch comes in and tells me that because teeth are used to determine species, the work being done could prove or disprove whether this animal is a separate species.

Welch says it so far looks like a species that was named in 2010 based on the lower teeth. “Now we have upper teeth and part of the skull. The difference could be variation by ecology (for example, what it ate). It was found at same site so would have been contemporary. We looked at several hundred jaws. This one could be an ‘ecomorph’ – just different because of what it ate.”

The Badlands have some of the oldest dogs ever found, and the most diversity. In the display case is one of only eight specimens ever found – the other seven are at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City but they are not displayed; this is only specimen that can be viewed.“It is the oldest one of its kind,” 33-32 million years old – and was found by a college student from Missouri.

He says the seven-year old girl who found the saber cat fossil that the Ranger showed, came back this year, now 16 years old.

“We ask visitors to leave the fossil where it is and report to us, give us photos, a GPS, so we can locate. Some of the fossils were found right on the trail, not even in remote areas.

Probably the most famous – a hero around the lab – is photographer Jim Carney of Iowa who found two bones that ended up being a big bone bed that so far has yielded 19,000 specimens.

Judging by wall of photos of visitors and their finds just in 2019 it would seem that people have great odds and probability of finding important fossil. Add fossil hunting to the hiking or biking adventure.

Dramatic scenery in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The fossils collected here since the 1840s are in every major institution. While fossils of dinosaurs and early man might get everyone excited, these fossils – the middle of the Age of Mammals – are important to fill out that story of ecological and evolutionary change.

“The Badlands is in the middle of the earth’s transition from Greenhouse to Ice House – and the fossils found here show how animals responded to the ecological change: “adapt, migrate or go extinct.”

Welch made the decision to open the paleontology lab so people can see scientists at work. “We decided to do more than a fishbowl, to make it a great education tool.”

The Fossil Preparation Lab in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is typically open from 9 am – 4:30 pm daily from the second week in June through the third week in September.

Badlands National Park is open year-round.

(More information on Badlands National Park at www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm, www.nps.gov/badl/planyourvisit/events.htm)

During our ride through the Badlands National Park, I spot the major animals that are resident here: bighorn sheep; American bison, pronghorn (also called antelope), mule deer and black-tail prairie dog. The one I miss is a coyote (yet to come).

The breathtaking scenery as we bike through Badlands National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have 12 miles further to bike to our accommodation for the night, the Circle View Guest Ranch, which proves to be an amazing experience in itself.

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

There are still a few spots left on Wilderness Voyageurs’ Quintessential West Cuba Bike Tour departing onMarch 21.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

_________________________

© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures