A Big Loop Around The Center Of The USA: June/July 2013

Raegan and Erin and I took a big loop trip 27 June – 05 July 2013.

Trip summary: 2,495 miles of amazing scenery, eight states, a couple National Parks and Monuments, and good food.

Pictures are on Google Plus here.

This trip was built around a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Emergency Airborne Command Post/National Airborne Operations Center (NEACP/NAOC) mission in Omaha. I decided early on that going on to Mount Rushmore would be a fun addition, and the trip sort of grew from there. Ian wasn’t able to go with us due to work commitments.

We started out, as is our custom, late. I wanted to head out around 1300 Thursday, but I left work a little later, then had a couple errands to run, and even though Raegan and Erin were ready, I didn’t get home until 1430, and we headed out at 1500. We got to the Lenexa, KS area in time for us to visit an American Girl store, have some very good BBQ for dinner, and then get to the hotel in the KCI area. We left the next morning for Omaha, and spent the next couple days in that area for the NEACP/NAOC activities. The neatest part was being able to take Raegan and Erin on a detailed tour of the E-4B at Offutt, so that they could see what I’m working on during my trips to Omaha.

We left after the tour and headed north into South Dakota, turning west at Sioux Falls for Badlands National Park. This was a drive, over 460 miles. The terrain started off as unrelenting flat and cultivated. The speed limits along I-29 and I-90 was 75, which was very nice. We passed a couple large mining operations along I-29 in Sioux Falls, which I think are quartzite mines.

I was pretty amazed by the lack of elevation change as we headed west from Sioux Falls. The elevation at Sioux Falls is 1470 ft. We drove almost halfway across SD, and when we got to the Missouri River, suddenly the terrain went way down, and then back up on the west side of the river. The river surface elevation was under 1400 feet. As we headed west, we climbed steadily, until we got to the area around Badlands. On the “rim” of Badlands, it was about 2600 ft, and 2400 ft on the floor.

We stayed overnight in the Badlands Inn, which is just outside the park (by that, I mean about 300 yards). Our room, which was unexpectedly very nice, looked out at the Park. They had a really nice breakfast. We spent Monday driving through the Badlands, admiring the very cool rock formations. We eventually exited the north side and drove into Wall for a late lunch.

The next event was a speed run into Rapid City. We stopped at Ellsworth AFB, went through the museum there, and took the base tour. The real reason for this was to visit the missile training silo on base. That was pretty neat. The museum has one of the EC-135A WWABNCP aircraft on static display, which is very cool and quite sad for me. I flew one test flight on that aircraft out of the CTAS plant in Waco, TX back in the early 90s. The training silo tour was pretty cool. Even though it is all simulated equipment, the missile just gives you chills.

So this is the second of two Cold War missile-related exhibits in the area. The National Park Service (NPS) runs another one back at the same I-90 exit that leads to the east end of Badlands National Park. That exhibit is a tour of an actual Launch Control Center (LCC). I would make the Omaha-Badlands drive again just to take that tour.

We stayed at a Hilton Garden Inn in Rapid City. After dinner, we ran an errand or two, and went to the local Cabelas to see if they were giving away kayaks ( 🙂 ). What we should have done was drive the half hour out to Mount Rushmore for the evening lighting of the Monument. I was under the impression that Rushmore was a 1.5 hour drive, and didn’t realize until the next day that it was so close.

The next morning, we got up and went to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology museum on campus. That is a VERY impressive museum. They had a fantastic mineral collection with some beautiful specimens. I learned a new term here – “placer mining”. I was aware of Placerville, CA, and other uses, and knew it was a mining term, but at this museum I learned that placer mining is techniques for removing metal and other minerals from loose deposits such as gravel or sand.

The fossil collection at the Museum was breathtaking. There were specimens there that had definition I have never seen before. It was a great visit.

After checking out some more of Rapid City, we headed out to Mount Rushmore. It was very impressive. Erin and I hiked the Presidential Trail, which is a half mile loop from the Visitor Center out to the base of the Memorial. It is a very different perspective.

We wanted to stay in the mountains (AKA Black Hills) as long as possible, so we left the Memorial to the west, and drove a loop around to the Crazy Horse Memorial, and then down to the southeast through Wind Cave National Park.

We took a couple hundred mile drive from there town to Scottsbluff, NE. On the way, we stopped for dinner in Chadron, NE, and saw a very odd tower structure west of town. I’ve had no luck so far figuring out what it is.

I'd like to find out what this is.  So far, the suggestions are radar target, RF reflector, and failed billboard ( :) ).

I’d like to find out what this is. So far, the suggestions are radar target, RF reflector, and failed billboard ( 🙂 ).

We stayed overnight in Scottsbluff, and after doing a drive-by of the National Monument there, headed south and west into the Denver area. We were driving along NE 88, when I saw a familiar looking antenna to the left – it was at a missile silo! We past eight of them on the drive into Cheyenne, in two configurations. I grabbed a Google Earth image to show the birds-eye view of what we saw from the ground.

Silo_1

We got into the Denver area around 1400. Our first stop was a very neat butterfly garden between Denver and Boulder. Next we went up to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and toured it. By the time we left, I really wanted to apply to work there. The computer facilities were just amazing!

We headed down to the south Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, hit another American Girl store, and settled into our hotel.

The next day, we headed near downtown to visit the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. GREAT visit! They had another mineral and mining exhibit, and a geology and paleontology exhibit that knocked our socks off. There were volunteers everywhere doing demonstrations. They had two floors of very cool dioramas of various areas, ranging from Australia to Asia to North American to the Antarctic to the Arctic. We were all very impressed.

We headed out of town late, and ended up in Hays, KS for our last night on the road. Our final day was spent driving back to OKC.

One thing that was cool all along the side of the road was in Kansas south of Hays. Many of the fence posts were made from sandstone pillars. Given the lack of wood for posts, that is a creative solution, but it had to be some work to get the stone shaped.

We also saw an oriole while driving along. It was bright, bright orange, and was likely a Baltimore Oriole. We saw it from about six feet away.

This was a fast, and very neat, trip. We love just looking at scenery and terrain, and there was a tremendous amount on this trip. There is apparently a strip of white-gray mineral running from southwest Nebraska north past the Badlands area. There were all sorts of interesting terrain to see. We didn’t have a bit of trouble on the trip.

We rented a Ford Taurus for the trip, it was a very good ride. Plenty of room for all three of us and our stuff, and comfortable to ride in. It had Sirius/XM, which was nice.

We only had two places where we had no cell service; between Chadron and Scottsbluff, NE, we lost service for a bit. We lost it in the Black Hills for just a bit as well.

Here is the route we took, courtesy of Google Maps:

Route Map

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