Montana to Michigan: East across the Plains – Part II

Black Hills NF in South Dakota to Black River NF, in Michigan


09 02 001 Map Part II

Badlands National Park

We made a good decision to take in the Badlands as a day trip and keep our base campsite in the Black Hills rather than move it for just one day. We left early on a clear day and drove the 100 miles to Wall Drug in time for an 8 AM breakfast and that famous five cent coffee. After all, with 50 miles of Wall Drug billboards announcing its approach one could hardly make the trip to the Badlands and not stop there. In 1980 we stopped at Wall Drug but skipped the Badlands.  We were tired of traveling: (my words at the time were “I’ve seen my mother’s slide photos.”. We noticed the souvenirs had become more politically correct and less risqué which made for a fun conversation with one of the long-term employees there.


As we drove between Rapid City and Wall Drug the yellow tinted Prairie continued to amaze us and this continued as we drove the roads through the Badlands. Once again it was Yellow Sweet Clover which provided the color. This plant is biennial, which means it has a two-year life cycle. Essentially it takes two consecutive wet years to produce the wave of yellow Prairie Bloom we had been enjoying for the past week.


Following up on a tip from another camper traveler (Lynn Amber who is a full-time work camper see: ) to the Western states we stopped at the National Grasslands Visitor Center, a short walk from Wall Drug. The folks there are a wealth of information about grassland ecosystems, plants, wildlife and human history in the Western states. We spent over an hour there looking at the exhibits, watching the video and talking with the Rangers working at the front desk. Since the official visitor center is at the Eastern end of Badlands National Park, they were also helpful with maps, camping information and finding our way to special places which are off the main auto route.


The beauty and significance of Prairie grasslands was recognized during the Corps of Discovery exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. From the diary of Meriwether Lewis we have the following:

“This senery already rich pleasing and beatiful, was still farther hightened by immence herds of Buffaloe, deer Elk and Antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains.” – Meriwether Lewis, September 17, 1804.

As a governmental organization National Grasslands is currently administered through the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It began in the 1930s as part of FDR’s post-Depression era social recovery program which was called the New Deal. Over 11 million acres of sub marginal land (a sequel to the Homestead Act, decades of traditional deep cultivation agriculture and finally drought situations accompanied by Dust Bowl erosion) was purchased and destitute farm families were resettled in cities and subsistence homestead villages. Of the original purchased land, 3.8 million acres became 19 national grasslands in 1960. Today National Grasslands are a multiple use federal lands much like our National Forests. These multiple uses include: mineral, oil and gas extraction in a carefully regulated way, models for adjacent landowners in the practice of sustainable agriculture and the conservation of grassland ecosystems but especially they provide diverse recreational uses for millions of people. The motto for the U.S. Forest, “CARING FOR THE LAND AND SERVING PEOPLE,” captures the Forest Service mission. As set forth in law, the mission is to achieve quality land management under the sustainable multiple-use concept to meet the diverse needs of people.

09 02 004C
National Grasslands of the US

At Hay Butte Overlook on the rim road along the western section of the park one can see grasslands on top of very steep sided mesas. In a wet year such as this one they are green islands in the sky. Because the access is difficult large grazing animals rarely inhabit them. However, the sign describes a time when a mowing machine was disassembled, transported to the top of these plateaus and reassembled to harvest the hay. The bales were then rolled down the side of the butte. This is what I would call “hardscrabble farming.”


Once again we saw a variety of wildlife. I will save you from looking at a long sequence on Prairie dogs which were abundant but these individuals seem to enjoy grazing along the roadside.


Others seemed more inclined to keep their distance such as this selection of bison, bighorn sheep and occasionally humans climbing the rocks.


As the day progressed and the sun dropped lower in the sky the shadows made for more dramatic photographs and larger numbers of animals appeared.


We left the Badlands and drove back towards the Black Hills in the setting sun. We had a late dinner at Panera Bread in Rapid City and were back at our campsite by 11 PM.


Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt first came to the Badlands to hunt North America’s big-game animal, the American Bison before they disappeared altogether. He was an “Eastern dude” and there were no locals who stepped up to be his guide. A Canadian living there at the time was tempted by the cash Teddy offered and impressed by Roosevelt’s perseverance through bad weather and poor luck, in part due to the scarcity of buffalo. It was during these buffalo hunting expeditions that Roosevelt fell in love with the Western range and became enamored of the cowboy tradition. Late night conversations with his hosts at Lang’s Ranch often led to discussions about the boom in cattle ranching and he joined the business, purchasing his first ranch. As Edmund Morris wrote in a biography, “Fourteen thousand dollars was a small price to pay for so much freedom.”  He was now immersed in a Western lifestyle he had long romanticized.

Overgrazing, summer drought and harsh winters led to devastating loss of his cattle and failure at ranching. It seems that the collapse of cattle ranching together with his experience in the wilderness came together to make him a dedicated conservationist. When writing about his numerous hunting trips, he describes his lament for the loss of species and habitat.  As he states it in this quote, “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”  Theodore Roosevelt

The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a tribute to that sentiment and a president whose efforts have earned him the title of “conservation president.” His conservation legacy left 230 million acres of public land by the end of his presidency. After he left office 23 of the 35 sites to be managed by the newly formed National Park Service were initiated during his years as president. He created the U.S. Forest Service and was the first president to create a Federal Bird Preserve.

We stayed in the South unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, camping at the Cottonwood campground on the Little Missouri River.


As is our habit, we like to take our “wildlife drives” in the early morning or the early evening. The scenery is beautiful and reminds me of those Western movies that my brothers and I used to enjoy.


There were dozens of Prairie dog towns and of course they are always entertaining.


There are resident wild horses who roam throughout the Park and the first ones we saw were silhouetted on a hilltop near the entrance. Later on we saw some grazing near the road


And one of my favorite photos was of this small band of wild Mustangs who posed on a hilltop for Toni to get a shot as we came around the bend in the road.

09 03 016
What a sight!!!

Black River National Forest – Michigan Upper Peninsula


09 02 001B Map Part II

The forecast was for deteriorating weather and storms across the Plains states. We had experienced this before with lots of rain, sometimes hail and dramatic lightning shows at night. We decided to get ahead of it and set our sights on a motel in Fargo for that evening. With the storm still at our backs we aimed for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and arrived at our national forest campground on Lake Superior near the mouth of the Black River.

We arrived in time to park our camper and do some exploring.  A drive to the Black River Harbor Recreation Area provided a view of the mouth of the river and its entry into Lake Superior. As we arrived there were a number of kayakers who were coming ashore.


The Black River has several waterfalls as it approaches the lake, but we arrived so late we only visited two falls and could get good pictures of only one: Potawatomi Falls, which appears below.


On some future date, with more time available and pleasant weather I conceded this would be a good place to explore. We returned to our campsite just before dark and walked out to the shoreline where we had a nice view of the setting sun. The mosquitoes were hungry so we didn’t dally and climbed into bed shortly thereafter.


I woke early the next morning which is my usual routine. The sky had a threatening appearance and an eerie light typical of that preceding a storm so we packed up and hit the road. A couple hours later we stopped for breakfast and were the first customers at a small restaurant near a crossroad. An elderly woman ran the place, waited tables, served the delicious breakfast waffles and took the payment at the end. It appeared a friend of hers was in the kitchen.

We drove in the drizzle through the day bypassing the North Shore communities and headed for St. Ignace where we registered for an upper-level room overlooking the lake. A quiet dinner at a shore side restaurant was a satisfactory end to the day.


Mackinac Island

The next day there was a slight after upturn in the weather so we took a long shot on the slow ferry to Mackinac Island (there is a fast catamaran ferry). This 4 square-mile island in Lake Huron near the bridge connecting the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan has a long history. First settled by a tribe of trading Native Americans and later becoming the site of the British Fort Mackinac during the American Revolution where it was strategically placed to control a water route on the Great Lakes. In the late 19th century it became a tourist attraction and summer colony for the wealthy.


The Grand Hotel with its 660 foot long front porch and 397 uniquely different rooms can be seen far out on the lake as we approach the port and is admired by most visitors to the island from its front lawn.


Travel on the island is by foot, bicycle or horse drawn carriages as there are no private motor vehicles allowed. We explored part of the town as well as the hillside up from the harbor.

Travel in style on Mackinac Island


The next morning we headed south towards Ohio for more visits with family and friends

5 thoughts on “Montana to Michigan: East across the Plains – Part II

  1. How lucky to see a meadowlark, one of North America’s disappearing species (pairs).

    Matt G

    On Fri, Dec 6, 2019 at 4:40 PM VT TEARDROP TRAVELERS wrote:

    > VT Teardrop Travelers posted: “Black Hills NF in South Dakota to Black > River NF, in Michigan Badlands National Park We made a good decision to > take in the Badlands as day trip and keep our base campsite in the Black > Hills rather than move it for just one day. We left early on ” >


  2. Wow ! And thanks too!xxxxNora

    On Fri, Dec 6, 2019 at 4:39 PM VT TEARDROP TRAVELERS wrote:

    > VT Teardrop Travelers posted: “Black Hills NF in South Dakota to Black > River NF, in Michigan Badlands National Park We made a good decision to > take in the Badlands as day trip and keep our base campsite in the Black > Hills rather than move it for just one day. We left early on ” >


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