Category Archives: National Park

Our Eclipse Trip (Part 1)

The total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017 was the first one that we would be able to get to and view.  Buffalo had an annular  eclipse (the moon is farther from the Earth, producing a ‘Ring of Fire’) in 1994, but it was too overcast to see, and the previous visible total eclipse was in 1925!   So we had planned for this for a couple of years to get the right place to be to see it well.

LOOK BACK: Walter Cronkite covers the 1979 eclipse

I had scoped out the Dixon Springs State Park in Illinois as a nearly perfect place to stay.  It was about midway between the point of maximum coverage and maximum duration.  I emailed back and forth with one of the park officials who identified the best sites to fit our bus, and let me know that the site reservation window would open on January 1, 2017 for the August reservations.

However, when I logged into ReserveAmerica to grab one of the sites, I found them ALL booked.  It turns out that the state of Illinois had decided to capitalize on the eclipse for tourism, and had rolled their reservation window back to November and promoted their state sites!  Scrambling a bit, I found the Fort Massac State Park, adjacent to Metropolis, Illinois.

French Fort De L’Ascension/Massac on the left and reconstructed American Fort Massac on the right.

Fort Massac was originally founded by the French in 1757 as Fort De L’Ascension, and was rebuilt and renamed Massac during the end of the French and Indian War.  While the British nominally owned the territory afterward, the fort itself was burned by the local Cherokee by the time the British got there.

Reconstructed American Fort Massac (minus the log palisades).

The Americans got into the act when General George Washington ordered the fort reconstructed in 1794, and for the next 20 years it served as a military post, sometimes called the ‘Gibraltar of the Ohio’ due to it’s elevation and view of the river. Notable figures of Merriweather Lewis and William Clark camped at Fort Massac in 1803 as they made preparations for their Corps of Discovery expedition to the newly purchased Louisiana Territory.

The sign says it all …

Metropolis was laid out as a formal town in 1839, and it was hoped that it would be a transportation and commerce hub. It is now a city of about 6000 people, and is best known as the home of Superman (this is official, both from DC Comics and the Illinois State Legislature!).


A tiny fraction of the stone tool collection at Fort Massac.

As we were to find out, the Fort Massac Visitor Center there is mostly museum! They have a great collection of native american stone artifacts (from all over Illinois), and French and American artifacts recovered from the forts.

But most important for me was the fact that Fort Massac was still within the band of totality for the eclipse, and was only about 16 miles from Dixon Springs, so we wouldn’t lose much (about 10 seconds of totality) from being dead-center along the eclipse line. Within a few minutes, I had a site chosen and booked.  We had a place to camp for the eclipse!

Then we had to get there.  The longest trip that we’d taken the bus on was from Buffalo to Ohiopyle, PA (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) and back which was a measly 600 miles or so.  This was going to be some 1600 miles, so it would be our biggest foray to date.

Our (rather grainy) route map for the Eclipse Trip

We had limited time to make the trip, and decided on a few key places to stop on our trip.  We had some friends in Cincinnati, OH who we could stop and see, the Embroiderer’s Guild of America Headquarters were in Louisville, KY, as was the Bulleit Bourbon Distillery tour (at the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery), all on the way to Fort Massac.  On the way back, we could stop at Mammoth Caves and Big Bone Lick (where we could camp for the night).

With all this planned out, the next thing was packing and provisioning the bus. And then, of course, setting out on the journey …

(Continued in Part 2)


Destination: The Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial

So, another destination area for us is out to the west of the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota, the Black Hills area of South Dakota and Wyoming.  The Black Hills are a small, isolated range of mountains in the midst of the Great Plains, and got their name from the way the heavily forested mountains looked from a distance across the plains.

The Black Hills off in the distance across the Plains from Box Elder, SD.
The Black Hills off in the distance across the Plains from Box Elder, SD.

The oldest rocks in the formation are Precambrian rocks (mostly granite in the core, dated to about 1.8 billion years ago) pushed up by volcanic uplift in the center, with more recent rings of exposed Paleozoic , Mesozoic, and Cenozoic layers going from the center out, often explained as looking at a bullseye with the oldest rock at the center and the most recent at the edges.  If you want tones of technical details, the US Geological Survey has a whole pamphlet of information on it here.

Once there, though, there are a number of localities that we would want to examine in detail:

Mount Rushmore:
Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

Carved (and blasted) from a granite batholith formation in the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore features 60-foot (18 m) sculptures of the heads of four United States presidents: George Washington (1732–1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), and Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865).   Construction on the memorial began in 1927, and the presidents’ faces were completed between 1934 and 1939 by Gutzon Borglum and then after 1941, finished by his son Lincoln Borglum.

The original Six Grandfathers mountain.
The original Six Grandfathers mountain.

While the Lakota Sioux called the peak the ‘Six Grandfathers’, and had been a spiritual location for the Oglala Lakota Sioux medicine man Black Elk (writer of Black Elk Speaks).   But this similarity of profiles in the view was what drove South Dakota historian Doane Robinson to suggest to Congress that historic likenesses should be carved into the mountainside to try and promote tourism into South Dakota.  This is an unfortunate byproduct of the military campaigns of 1876-78 where the United States government forcibly took the lands from the Lakota Sioux due to the controversial 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

A Native American answer to Mount Rushmore is …

Crazy Horse Memorial:
Crazy Horse Memorial (Work in progress).
Crazy Horse Memorial (Work in progress).

About nine miles away as the crow flies is the Crazy Horse Memorial, conceived by  Lakota leader Chief Henry Standing Bear and designed and expanded by Korczak Ziolkowski.  Intended to be a mounted likeness of the Lakota leader Crazy Horse,  this unnamed mountain peak is being systematically reduced and carved into a monument 641 feet long and 563 feet high!

Jewel Cave National Monument:
Jewel Cave National Monument
Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument contains Jewel Cave, currently the third longest cave in the world, with 179 miles of mapped passageways.  Declared a national monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908, it wasn’t until much later in that century that most of what we have mapped of the cave was discovered.  Named for the calcite crystals that adorned the first two miles of the original entrance, there are many other areas people can see, and an average of three additional miles are explored and mapped each year!

Wind Cave National Monument:
Skyway Lake in Wind Cave
Skyway Lake in Wind Cave

Another of Teddy Roosevelt’s National Monument declarations, Wind Cave was the very first cave system to get the National Monument designation in 1903.

Calcite 'Boxwork'
Calcite ‘Boxwork’

Among its notable geological features are the calcite boxwork (caused by erosion rather than accretion), of which the Wind Caves contain almost 95% of the known boxwork formations in the world, as well as the fact that the caves form the densest three-dimensional cave maze in the world!  Definitely not a place to wander off on your own without a good bread-crumb trail.  But is also supposed to have been the site of emergence for the Lakota Sioux in their creation story, making is a sacred location.

Devils Tower National Monument:
Devil's Tower
Devils Tower

Some 75 miles northwest of Jewel Cave is the amazing Devils Tower monolith, the remains of igneous rock that may or may not have actually erupted.  Either way, however, the sedimentary rock around it eroded away, leaving the tougher rock, with some hexagonal columns standing alone.

Devil's Tower in 1900
Devils Tower in 1900

Again, thanks to Teddy Roosevelt, Devils Tower became the First National Monument on September 24th, 1906.  But before that, this site was sacred to several Native American tribes, with several of their legends regarding the area referring to bears, whose claws raked the sides of the monolith as they strove to get at the trapped people atop it.

This is, however, some 1470 miles from Buffalo, making it about a 25 hour trip (at bus speed) to get there.  Likely, it will be part of a bigger trip.


For more on Black Elk, and Lakota sacred views and practices, check out: 

Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition (Paperback)

List Price: $19.95 USD
New From: $8.00 USD In Stock
Used from: $4.03 USD In Stock

Destination: Great Smokey Mountains National Park and The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History

NPSGreat Smokey Mountains National Park

So, yet another National Park destination, and this one is not only in the Appalachian Mountain Range, but also is at the south-western end of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  But instead of being in Virginia, here we’re located in North Carolina and Tennessee, with more wilderness in the park.

Cades Cove (Elev 1807), Elkmont (Elev 2150), and Smokemont (Elev 2198) are the only campgrounds that can accommodate an RV as long as our 35′ bus, but there are others that can fit smaller campers and RVs.   All of these are “frontcountry” campgrounds located around the edges of the park, with trails leading in farther.  But even with these edge locations, there are no showers or electrical or water hookups in the park (except for a few 5 amp sites for those with medical needs).  All the sites farther into the park are hike-in “backcountry” sites.

The 360 observation tower atop Clingman's Dome, on a nice, clear day.
The 360 observation tower atop Clingman’s Dome, on a nice, clear day.

One of the places I want to hit here is Clingman’s Dome,  which at 6643 feet, is the highest point in Tennessee and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi.  There is a seasonal road to get up there, but the Appalachian Trail crosses over Clingman’s Dome as well.

The night sky at Clingman's Dome.
The night sky at Clingman’s Dome.

There is a 45 foot observation tower to make sure that you get a chance to see as far as you can (on some days over 100 miles).  Just seven miles from the Newfound Gap Road (Route 441) (Newfound Gap is the lowest altitude drivable pass through the Great Smokey Mountains) that traverses the park from south-east to north-west.   Just along this road to the south-east is the Smokemont campground and the start of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway that runs from there to Charlottesville, VA (Right up along by the Shenandoah National Park).

The 'Tree of Shame' at Deal's Gap motorcycle resort.
The ‘Tree of Shame’ at Deal’s Gap motorcycle resort.

On the western end of the Park is the (infamous) ‘Tail of the Dragon’ road (Route 115) from Chilhowe, TN to Cheoah Dam, NC.  This section of road has been seen as a ‘proving ground’ for motorcyclists and sports car drivers as it borders the Park and has thus stayed undeveloped.  This 11 mile section of roadway has nearly 320 curves to it, and even with the reduction of the speed limit from 55 to 30 miles per hour, there are numerous accidents, commemorated at the ‘Tree of Shame’ at Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort, decorated with bits of wrecks.

So lots of scenic drives and hikes through the area, but just over 100 miles to the south is the:


The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History
The General
The General

An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History of Kennesaw, GA, houses The General, a famous locomotive stolen by Union spies during the Civil War who tried to run it to Chatanooga, TN, a story that inspired Buster Keaton’s 1926 silent movie The General.  And while much of the museum is apparently built around preserving the historic locomotive, it also focuses on how important the supplies and mobility provided by railroad networks were for both sides during the Civil War.  They even have an machineworks exhibit that details the process of building a locomotive, from casting to assembly.


And, because it’s available, here is the full-length comedy classic: