Road Trip 2016 - Pt 1

Recently we have taken most of our vacations outside of the United States but this year would be different. Initially our vacation would be focused on Yellowstone National Park but then we decided to expand it to a larger road trip that eventually grew to over 2000 miles though six states including Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, South Dakota, Montana and Utah. We would visit at least one State Park, five National Parks and a couple of National Monuments. I would be traveling with my wife, Jeanne and our fried Hoa Truong, later we would be joined by our son Carlin.

We would fly into Denver, Colorado and from there rent a SUV. When we arrived in Denver we upgraded our SUV to a full-size Buick Enclave with three-row seating which proved to be a very smart decision and one I would suggest to anyone thinking of taking a road trip, get a larger car for comfort. The Buick performed flawlessly and soon we were well on our way. Our limit of one piece of luggage and a backpack also proved itself. The only think I would add is an empty duffle bag to carry anything that you purchase along the way that can be checked in. The first thing we noticed was that the gas prices were a lot cheaper than what we experienced back home. The speed limits were higher as well and this was very welcome as our first stop was around 350 miles away. After leaving Colorado we drove through endless swaths of Wyoming until we reached South Dakota where the scenery became more wooded. Originally we had intended to stop off in Cheyenne for lunch but another stipulation we set was to limit any night driving for safety and not to over stress the driving duty and keep things enjoyable. Even though we drove close to 3000 miles we never felt over tired and a couple of driver changes kept everyone sharp. The final portion of our first day's drive was quite beautiful though other scenery was interesting as well since we had never traveled to Wyoming before.

Custer State Park

Our stop for the evening was the Holiday Inn Express in Custer. As we got closer to Custer the scenery became more and more lush and we arrived safe and sound. After unloading our luggage we went into town for dinner but found only a pizza place still open. It was our intention to get up early the next day in order to view the wildlife within the Custer State Park. It proved to be a wise decision, in fact getting up early while on vacation has always worked well for us.

Gold was found near what is now Custer during the 1874 Black Hills Expedition, conducted by the 7th Cavalry led by Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, a discovery which initiated the Black Hills Gold Rush. The town was originally named Stonewall before being changed to Custer after the General. The State Park which is just outside of town is one of the country's largest at 71,000 acres. The park was established in 1912 and hosts 1,300 head of free roaming bison.We woke up early on our first full day to drive the Wild Life Loop road, travels through 18 miles of open grasslands and pine-speckled hills that much of the park’s wildlife calls home. Depending on the day, you might see bison, pronghorn, whitetail and mule deer, elk, coyotes, burros, prairie dogs, eagles, hawks, and a variety of other birds. We also took one of the gravel side roads and got to see some prairie dogs up close. While visiting the beautiful new visitor center we were surrounded by buffalo which blocked our exit as we were herded into the visitor center for our own safety. Our "rescue" required a call to the ranger who used his bull whip to scatter the animals so we could return to our cars, the whip was just cracked in the air and not used on any bison.

From the Wild Life Loop we proceeded onto the Iron Mountain Scenic Road and our visit to Mount Rushmore. The Iron Mountain Road is a 17-mile stretch of scenic road through the Black Hills of South Dakota that includes 314 curves, 14 switchbacks and 3 tunnels and leads to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. At a number of points we were treated to a view of the Memorial thorough the trees. Looking at it from afar it almost looks surreal, what we have seen in our history books was actually before us. In all honestly I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to see this iconic sculpture in real life. I knew then what awe inspiring really meant. A large multi-level parking lot was attached to the Memorial and the crowds were pretty large without feeling overly crowded. We understood that this was one of the top tourist destinations in the United States and felt privileged to be able to visit it. My wife and our friend Hoa took the short audio tour. The facility at the Memorial is first class though better food concessions can be found at any major ball park.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The story behind Mount Rushmore is quite interesting, led by the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, work on the project began in 1927 and was finally completed in 1941. Over that time period, some 400 workers erected the sculpture under dangerous conditions, removing a total of 450,000 tons of rock in order to create the enormous carved heads, each of which reached a height of 60 feet (18 meters). In sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s original design, the four presidents were meant to be represented from the waist up, but insufficient funding brought the carving to a halt after completion of their faces. Known as the “Shrine of Democracy,” Mount Rushmore welcomes upwards of 2 million visitors every year, and is one of America’s most popular tourist attractions. A bill introduced in Congress in 1937 proposed that a carving of Susan B. Anthony's head be included among the luminaries at Mount Rushmore, but fell through due to a rider on the existing appropriations bill mandating that federal funds be spent only on those carvings already begun.

From Mount Rushmore we drove approximately 50 miles to Deadwood South Dakota and stayed at The Lodge. This proved popular with my mother-in-law because our accommodations included a casino! We would stay there one night before stopping in Gillette, Wyoming and traveling on towards Bozeman, Montana.


Deadwood is famous or more accurately infamous not for who lived there but rather who died there. This is the town that saw the end of Wild Bill Hickok. Wild Bill Hickok was an American frontiersman, army scout and lawman who helped bring order to the frontier West. A legend during his lifetime and considered one of the American west's premier gunfighters, James Butler ("Wild Bill") Hickok was born May 27, 1837, in Troy Grove, Illinois. The son of William Alonzo and Polly Butler Hickok, he was by all accounts a master marksman from an early age. Wild Bill Hickok's iconic status is rooted in a shootout in July 1861 in what came to be known as the McCanles Massacre in Rock Creek, Nebraska. The incident began when David McCanles, his brother William and several farmhands came to the station demanding payment for a property that had been bought from him. Hickok, just a stable-hand at the time, killed three of the men, despite being severely injured himself. Overall, it was reported that Hickok had killed over 100 men during his lifetime.

During a 1871 gunfight that would ever change his life, Hickok was reportedly involved in a shootout with saloon owner Phil Coe. In the melee, Hickok caught a glimpse of someone moving towards him and responded with two shots killing his deputy Mike Williams, the last man killed by the legendary Wild Bill. Hickok never fought in another gun battle. The event haunted Hickok for the rest of his life. After an inquest where other incidents of Hickok’s brand of “frontier justice” was revealed, he was relieved of his duties, the Old West was changing. While passing through Deadwood, South Dakota, Wild Bill Hickok became a regular poker player at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon. On the afternoon of August 2, 1876, he was playing cards with his back to the door, something he seldom did. A young drifter named Jack McCall walked in and approached Hickok from behind. Not wasting a second, he quietly drew his revolver and shot Hickok in the back of the head, instantly killing him. Even in death Hickok's legend grew. The cards he was holding at the time -- a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights --became known as "the dead man's hand."

McCall was initially judged not guilty at an impromptu trial, his reason for the crime was that Hickok had killed his brother.Later it was found that McCall had no brothers and the verdict was later vacated. The courts were able to get around the problem of double jeopardy when it was found that the location of the crime and subsequent trial was still considered Indian Territory and thus not valid. Eventually a new warrant was written for his arrest and another trial found him guilty and he was duly hanged.

When we arrived in Deadwood the town was celebrating Wild Bill Hickok day with a number of special events including a dog jumping contest to see which dog could jump the farthest.The dogs seemed to range from competitive to having no clue.One dog would stop right at the edge of the ramp before dropping into the pool. Another dog landed on it's back!There were also actors in period costume but unfortunately some of the regular reenactments were not held in favor of a concert and a Karaoke contest. The weather was beautiful and Deadwood also has a number of casinos in town along with stores selling all manner of things including some very fancy boots.

From Deadwood we drove to Gillette, Wyoming and stayed at the Arbuckle Lodge which had a very nice indoor swimming pool but Gillette, itself did not have a lot to offer except for being very windy. If I were to do this road trip over again I might have stayed closer to Bozeman, possibly in Sheridan. The drive to Bozeman was the one part of our road trip I was not looking forward to ad we were warned that there is not a lot to see or do between Rapid City and there except for endless miles and open sky. These warnings proved to be on the mark but this section of our trip passed uneventfully. In Bozeman we once again stayed at a Holiday Inn, made easier by the fact that this would be a Rewards stay based upon points that I had accumulated in San Diego. I was tired but satisfied that so far our trip had gone off without a hitch.