Wednesday, July 20, 2016

New Adventures in Geographical Oddities and Treasures : Part 1

North American Pole of Inaccessibility

A couple of years ago you may remember I wrote a rather lengthy posting about my love and fascination with quirky geographical idiosyncrasies.  For as long as I can remember I have been drawn to peculiar places, particularly if those places are very remote.  In the previous post, I spoke about my trip to Province Point, a tiny exclave of Vermont that is only accessible through Canada.  If you were to ask me why the hell I am so drawn to otherwise strange and/or remote places, I'm not sure I could give you a sensible answer other than to say, that I just am.  I will stare for hours at maps and wonder what it would be like to be standing on a tiny remote island of the Canadian Arctic, or to visit a remote and uninhabited region of Alaska's North Slope.  To me, there's just something surreal about the wonderment of exploration, and for whatever reason, seeking out strange geographical oddities seems to satisfy that part of me.  Perhaps in previous lives I was a geographer, explorer, or land surveyor.

While the idea of a fun Vegas weekend, or a trip to a standard National Park may appeal to most people, I tend to eschew "traditional" vacation spots, and seek out those that most others would find either really, really boring, or simply a waste of time.  Admittedly, there is certainly part of me that likes "checking off boxes" when it comes to visiting places.  Since becoming interested in hiking all of the ~55+ of Colorado's 14 thousand foot peaks (14ers), I have already now hiked over 20 of them.  Similarly, since first taking a serious interest in visiting state High Points, I've now already finished over 30 in just a few years.  Yes it may seem a bit OCD, but it also gives me a reason to visit places I might not otherwise consider...and I inevitably end up stumbling upon something awesome that I hadn't planned to.

Which is where I think I will begin this new post.  One of the biggest "lists" of places that I've been working to seriously fill over the past 5-10 years, is my "States" list.  Back in 2012, I wrote a lengthy post about the history of my State Visits over the course of my lifetime.  That post ended with a map that looked like this:

After walking through the continental traipsing across my years in that post, I made a single vow.  I vowed that I'd be coming for that one final state on my list.  I'd be coming for North lone unspoiled state. The sole "unchecked" and uncolored state on my big color map.  I wanted to set foot in the only place I had not seen in my home country (Of course just talking states here, and not including territories like Guam, Puerto Rico, Somoa, etc...) fate would have it, I've had another memorable and quirky adventure around the heartland of America just this past two weeks, and was able to see many spectacular (and remote) places.  And much like my visit to Province Point Vermont, I get giddy just thinking about the goofy places I was able to experience.  So take a short little trip with me here online, as I walk my way through the strange, and somewhat bizarre places I recently visited.  Oh...and remember this map, as I will eventually come back to it.

The WY/SD/NE Triple Point:
The adventure began from Denver where I've been living the past month doing lab work.  This adventure trip was somewhat of a vacation/road-trip that C and I decided to take, with the goal of hitting as many fun and quirky places as possible. We have different definitions of exciting places, but we managed to each see a lot of stuff that we both enjoyed thoroughly. On our way north out of Denver, after popping through the lovely capital of Wyoming (Cheyenne), I made a request for a goofy side trip to the triple border point of Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska.  I knew from Google Earth and various texts, that a marker did exist there, but looked to be on someone's private ranch land.  This meant I wasn't sure of the success of this endeavor, but it wasn't that far out of the way to not at least try.  

The closer we got to the tri-state point, the more primitive the roads became.  Eventually, we were on dual-track mud roads, often waiting for cows to clear our path. Thankfully, our rental vehicle was a 4WD jeep that could handle it just fine.  It's important to note here that Google Maps has a very crude definition of what a drivable road is.  There were many times that Google had us turning onto a "road" that was literally a fenced-off, faint 4-wheeler track across someones open field.  These roads were neither public, nor drivable (even with our rental jeep).  

Eventually we turned up a dual-track road with a Ranch sign overhead and I started to suspect we might run out of road soon.  We turned north along the WY/NE border (about 2 miles south of the tri-state point), waiting for a large group of cows to clear the road, and then approached Indian Creek.  The mud was much much deeper than we anticipated and we nearly got stuck (even in low gear).  Having made it out the other side (worrying heartily about how we'd make it back) we now found ourselves clearly on someone's property.  We rounded the corner past the ranch house and finally came to the point where google had us turning north on to the other side of a fence.  In this case, the fence was closed/locked.  We sat for a long while thinking about what to do, and trying to find other ways around, but neither of us had decent signal to re-navigate.  No one appeared to be home at the ranch, and honestly we didn't even think that we might be able to get official permission anyway (nor did we really want to blow another hour possibly walking the final 2-3 miles to the tri-state marker.  Our goal was to make it north to the Black Hills, so hitting this point just wasn't important enough to spend more than a half a day on.  So...we smiled, laughed at the ridiculousness of our situation, and turned around.  On the way back, we bottomed out hard in the mud, and barely eeked out on the other side.  It was not a nice way to treat the rental jeep, but we came away relatively unharmed.  It would take us another 90 minutes or so to navigate our way through the rural panhandle of Nebraska to finally get us back on track for the Black Hills. 

Our route from Cheyenne, WY

One of many dirt roads along the way

Where we finally stopped near the tri-state point

Waiting for the cows just south of the private Ranch
The fence along the right marks the Nebraska border

Satellite view showing where cow picture was taken, where we stopped,
and where the actual tri-state point is (grey "interest" mark at top center)

Come to find out later, thanks to Jack Parsell's wonderful guide book (found here: Tri-State Points), it is actually possible to visit this triple point monument, you just need permission from the Ranch owner.  His specific instructions read, "Continue about 1 mile, along the border, then the road bends left, crosses Indian Creek, and goes up to the Jordan Ranch.  Visitors should stop at the ranch house to get permission and directions for preceding the remaining mile across the field to the tri-state point."  This wouldn't have helped us anyway, as there was no one at home at the Jordan ranch when we came through (probably gone for the Holidays), and in this case, we weren't ready to climb barb wire fences and walk an open mile, unsupervised, across someone's field.  This was clearly not BLM land.

After our little mud incident...we decided it best to view the point from afar, call it a loss, and move on.  It was a fun little adventure, but there were many other exciting places that warranted a visit, and we'd already spent several hours seeking this one out.  This turned out to be our only real "Failed Point of Interest" on this trip, but a great little story nonetheless.  We ended the night in Hot Springs, SD, laughing about the experience over a fantastic dinner.  Despite not tagging the actual tri-state point, the little excursion brought us to some of the remotest parts of rural America.  It was entirely worth the effort.

The Black Hills
Our next stop was the Black Hills area of South Dakota.  We did do our share of cliche' touristy things in the region such as Mt. Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, Mammoth Site, and even a Goofy Fun House.  But, we also made time for more exploration.

Mammoth Site - A live mammoth fossil excavation site

Bison in Custer State Park

Boxwork inside Wind Cave

Defying gravity...

Majestic Black Hills pose near Rushmore

Tree hugging with Mt. Rushmore in the background
Mt. Rushmore at sundown

Well hello there Mr. Washington

Must have had a bum leg when they named this road...

The following morning we had a full plan to Hike the South Dakota High Point (Harney Peak), but we awoke to terrible overcast and rain.  Rather than get wet and miserable, we decided to head North.  We first stopped at Bear Butte just outside Sturgis and hiked part way to the summit.  Geologically, this isolated 4400' peak (with 1250' of prominence) is an intrusive laccolith.  Spiritually, this peak is very important to the local Plains Indian tribes (Lakota, Sioux, Cheyenne, etc).  It was incredibly windy as we neared the top, so we decided to make our way down and keep heading north.  Perhaps it was Ma'heo'o imparting his divine might upon us...

Bear Butte, SD

Starting up the Bear Butte Trail

North Dakota:
As we headed North, I could feel my excitement mounting.  Miles ticked by, and we got ever-so-nearer to the one place I had yet to see....North Dakota.  I impatiently watched my GPS and saw as the dotted line of the border slowly approached the car.  After one final turn I could see the pull off at the Border.  I quickly pulled over and stopped the car just meters before the actual border.  I needed a minute to gather myself...  And then, just like that, I set foot into North Dakota and my 50th and final State was done.  It was a surreal feeling, and very cathartic.   Of course after my moment of reflection on all of my previous 49 state visits, I spent about 20 minutes jumping around and giggling like an idiot.

The road going North....

Nearing the ND border

Sitting at the Border...waiting to step into ND

Finally...all 50!

A little celebration

Thanks for humoring my weirdness C

Actual video taken at the border. Embarrassing, but necessary.

Popped over across the street to take a pic with the SD sign as well

With the border attained, and with the excitement wearing off, we set out to make some memories in this New State of ours.  Obviously, the most logical choice of things to do in Southwestern North Dakota is to hike the high point, White Butte...a mere hour drive north.  All I knew of the high point was that it was very remote, and was a couple of miles of open (no trails) route hiking. I had no idea of there'd be any tricky spots or problems.  Turns out, it was a very easy hike...but also one of my absolute favorites thus far.  At the top, we spent over 30 minutes all by ourselves tucked away on a grassy flank of the butte...taking in an absolutely perfect evening.  It really is to this day probably my favorite high point experience.  It was truly special up there, and I will definitely always remember it.  Track:

Just past the parking area, looking ahead to White Butte

Starting up the climb

About half-way to the summit

Badlands-type geology among the butte

Spherical concretions in a random rock

Summit celebration!

USGS Benchmark

Highest person in North Dakota

Resting and eating a dinner snack on the grassy flank of the high point

Trail running along the top of North Dakota, 
because why wouldn't you?

Abandoned farm house just off of the trail

Greeting some cows on our hike back to the car

We left the high point as the sun was starting to go down, and made our way back to South Dakota.  Along the way, we stopped through the interesting town of Bowman and took a few pics.  We eventually made our way just south of the border and found an incredibly remote campground nestled up in the Custer Gallatin National Forest called Picnic Spring Campground.  We were the only ones there and it was almost a bit spooky.  

A peculiar stop outside Bowman, North Dakota

Strange drive-through attraction

Custer Gallatin National Forest

Our quaint little campground that we had to ourselves

We woke the next morning deep inside a thick morning fog on top of our campground mesa...and it was truly something out of the twilight zone.  There were a few cows that had somehow made it up there and they just stood there staring at us.  It was we left quickly. 

Geographical Centers:
On the drive south, we made a short detour to the "Geographical Center of the Nation", located in a Farmers field in far western South Dakota.  It turns out determining the "Center of the US" is a very complicated thing.  A fellow adventurer named Jerry (and surveyor by training) whom I met through several email conversations, has spent years investigating this very question.  He is in the process of writing a fantastic book that covers the history of the Geographical Center of the US, and the multiple variations. I highly encourage you to check out his website covering this fascinating topic:  

The short story is that there are presently about 10 Geographical Centers if you want to visit them all, and this does NOT include tiny inconsistencies in surveying or monuments being places slightly off-set from the true GPS coordinates.  For example, the Center Monument located in Lebanon Kansas, is a few hundred yards from the true center due to it being on Private Property.  At any rate here's a quick list....
  • Geographical Center of the United States (All 50 States) - Remote Farm 22 miles North of Belle Fourche, SD
  • Observed Center of the United States (All 50 States) - Belle Fourche, SD (Monument)
  • Geographical Center of the United States (Contiguous 48) - Outside Lebanon, KS
  • Geographical Center of the United States (Contiguous 48 - Centroid Calculated) - ~6 Miles north of Agra, KS
  • Geodetic Center of the US (Surveying Center) - Meades Ranch, KS
  • Geographical Center of North American Continent - Center of unnamed lake South of Rugby, ND
  • Observed Geographical Center of North American Continent - Rugby, ND (Monument)
  • Mean Population Center of the United States (2010 Census) - Southwest Missouri
  • Median Population Center of the United States (2010 Census) - Southwest Indiana
  • North American Pole of Inaccessibility - ~5 Miles North of Allen, SD
This list only includes some of the numerous "Centers", but it's enough to give you a rough idea of how crazy it can become once you start investigating it.  You can also visit the center of every State as well....but that's just crazy talk.

So, back to our story.  We drove the few miles out of the way to visit the True Geographical Center located in a field across from ranch several miles down an old dirt road...north of Belle Fourche, SD

Pinpoint showing location of Geographical Center of 50 States

The actual spot located in farmer's field

The only signage indicating you are at the right spot

The short trail out to the monument/flag

At the Flag (Old Surveyed Site) of the U.S.

USGS Marker indicating that the newly surveyed mark is
in the direction of the arrow.

A few feet away from Flag, is the true Center marker

At the True Center

After our little visit to the "True" Center, we drove down to Belle Fourche to see the observed monument.  The town markets itself as the "Center of America" and certainly attracts tourists because of it.  In a downtown park, they have a lovely monument that is also worth a visit.  Most "normal" people visit this park, and consider it good enough.  It's only a few miles away from the true center, and margins of error are high enough, that in all honesty, it really is close enough.

Park Monument in Belle Fourche

On the Marker

Some signage at the park

Harney Peak and Needles Highway:
On our way back through the Black Hills, the weather cleared, and we had a perfect day for a fun hike up to Harney Peak.  Back in 2002 I hiked this peak and remembered it being just fantastic, so I happily agreed to do it again.  Again, it did not disappoint.  We had good weather all the way to the top, and the temps were perfect.  At the summit, we spent about 30 minutes playing around, and of course I had to hunt for the USGS benchmark...which I found on the secondary (and lower) summit a few hundred meters from the primary summit (with the observation building).  Here was our track:

The hiking trails starts at beautiful Sylvan Lake
Large Black Hills spires seen on the hike up to Harney Peak

Observation Tower at the Summit

At the very top of the Observation Tower (7244 Feet)

View from the top...

More of the Black Hills

Just looking over at some presidents' asses

Summit GPS point

Over on the adjacent summit tagging the USGS Benchmark

Summit Marker

On the way down, we drove the entire length of the "Needles Highway", a beautiful scenic drive through the black hills with many tunnels and unique rock formations.

One of many tunnels on the Needles Highway

The famous "Eye of the Needle", the highway's namesake.

Wall Drug / Badlands
No trip to South Dakota would be complete with a side trip to both Wall Drug and the Badlands.  If you're unfamiliar with Wall Drug, just google it.  It's a cooky tourist trap of a store/restaurant that has a storied history in the region.  It started many years ago as a small pit-stop on the way out West that happened to offer "Free Ice Water" to anyone that would stop in.  Back then, this was quite a treat.  Today, they still honor their free ice water, although it's become someone of a cooky schtick now.  The real charm of Wall Drug is the overabundance of goofiness/silliness.  If you take it too seriously, it will come across is quite hokey.  Thankfully, we ate it up and had a blast....

Enjoying my Free Ice Water at the Wall Drug store

One of many photo ops at Wall Drug

I met this fine lady while waiting to be seated

Jackalopes are still real to me dammit!

The Badlands of South Dakota are an indescribable wonderland.  I don't know how else to say this to anyone asking, but it truly is a "must see".  There's just something special about it that can't be described using language.  It must be seen and experienced.  We spent a few days touring around and visited a few places neither of us had ever seen in the Park.  One of the places we really enjoyed in particular, was our drive up to the Sheep Mountain Table in the Southwestern part of the Park.  We had a 4-wheel drive vehicle, so we made good use of it.  The road at the top is definitely NOT passable without high clearance 4WD.  Thankfully, we made it all the way to the end and had the entire Table Mountain to ourselves.  Towards the evening, a huge storm rolled in and made for some really cool views and pictures.  We night-hiked a bit up the Saddle Pass and Castle Trails and had a blast watching the lightning from afar (Track:  Later that night, while camping, we were pummeled by intense 50+ mph winds, large rain (and hail), and a lightning show like I have never seen in my life.  It was magical, but also certifiably terrifying.

Admiring the otherworldly view

More of the view

Sheep Mtn Table 4WD Road in Badlands NP

Our route up to the end of the road

Our Rental did ok, but let's just say I would 
never buy one of these. EVER. Lots of issues.

View from atop Sheep Mtn Table.

The storm was approaching

The ominous dark clouds over the Badlands

The timing on this photo was insane...

More of the oncoming storm...

Observing the Yellow Mounds formation, and a really nice Fault

Quick sketch showing the rough fault displacement

Badlands silhouette seen during night-hike

As we left the Badlands, we made a few more quick stops, fed a few prairie dogs, and then started the long drive South back to Denver.

Bighorn Sheep seen near Badlands

At this road-side stop, you can feed prairie dogs

These chubby guys were definitely fed well

And I certainly helped in that regard.

4th of July - Pole of Inaccessibility
Our final day, happened to be July 4th, and also happened to be one of our most packed days.  Looking back, we ended up seeing more things on our last day, than any other day of the trip. The very first stop we made heading south, was one of my most anticipated.  As quirky as it sounds, I was super geeked to visit the North American Pole of Inaccessibility.  This pole is defined as the farthest from any major water body (read as oceans/seas). Historically, this meant the farthest point for someone to reach a ship.  A recent paper was published by a group of Geographers and they used a new algorithm to determine the exact location of this pole for North America.  (The paper can be found here:  They determined a location of 43 degrees, 21 minutes, 36 seconds North Latitude, by 101 degrees, 58 minutes, 12 seconds West Longitude (or simply in decimal format: 43.36,-101.97).  While this sounds very exact, you'll find upon reading the paper, that their uncertainty is +- 14km.  Still, I'll take their published coordinates as gospel as it is the most recent and reliable published location.  The trip to this point was quite interesting and involved driving the outskirts of the town of Allen, SD.  Allen, is also incidentally ranked as the poorest place in the United States.  The point itself is on open land, ostensibly owned by some rancher in the area.  Generally out West, the rule of thumb is if a gate is open, it's ok to go through as long as you close it behind you.  If locked, you don't trespass.  This particular area was partially fenced, but access to the point was open from the road.  We assumed this mean that the land owner didn't really care, or that the land was simply BLM.  Specifically, I know that the surveyor I mentioned earlier (Jerry) has also visited this point, and where I got a lot of my information from.  You can read his report here: We parked along the side of and remote mud road, and began our bushwack-style hike down a hillside into a gnarly drainage.  It was very overgrown with brush, but totally worth it.  We thrashed our way down to the final drainage and then walked the few dozen meters up to the very small copse of trees.  My GPS began beeping, and sure enough we "had arrived at our destination" about 2/3 of a mile from the car. I took several pictures of my GPS and even made a sign to hold up.  If you visit Jerry's website, you'll find that he took his pictures at the exact same trees as I did.  This is comforting to know we both ended up at the same exact spot....yay for GPS technology!  I left my small cardboard sign in hopes that some other modern-day-explorer might find it.

At the Pole of Inaccessibility, showing my sign and GPS

GPS "Proof"

Official picture at the Pole

Route taken from Car

Zoomed in...

Final few hundred meters to the Pole

Location of the Pole

This geographically quirky story comes with definite down-side unfortunately.  On our hike back to the car, we chose a slightly different route, with a lot more thickets, briars, and tall grass. Back at the car, in the 100 degree weather, we were both happy and giggling.  This was of course until I noticed the tick on my sleeve.  No biggy I thought, just a tick hitching a ride.  Still I better check I thought.  I took off my wool layer and there were dozens of ticks everywhere.  I had over 30 blood suckers crawling all over me and my clothes.  It was awful.  I had a full on freak-out panic attack and started tearing off my clothes.  I found myself basically standing on a remote dirt road in South Dakota stripped down to my skivvies, squirming with the thought that ticks were crawling all over me.  Once I settled down and we positively and calmly assessed my situation...and cleared all the ticks, I dressed in clean clothes and thought the worst was over.  It wasn't.  Turns out, in those 10 minutes I was was standing on the road, I received about 30 black fly bites.  The black flies in South Dakota are not the same as on the East Coast.  Here, they are called Buffalo Gnats, and it turns out that I am quite allergic to them.  For the next 10 days, I was covered with the itchiest red bumps I've ever had.  Benadryl, Cortizone cream, Aloe....didn't matter.  These bites would not go away, and they itched like hell.  So...was the trip to the pole still worth it?  Absolutely. ;-) I did not find any embedded ticks later that night thankfully. (Needless to say, I would suggest wearing DEET and/or permethrin if you intend to visit the pole yourself).

Carhenge, Alliance, Nebraska
After our fun little exploration through rural SD and the Pole of Inaccessibility, we headed South and randomly stumbled up on Carhenge.  Yes, thee actual Carhenge (outside of Alliance Nebraska).  This wasn't planned and totally random....but quite awesome.  To this day now, I've officially visited the real Stonehenge in England, Foamhenge in Virginia (an exact replica made of foam), and Carhenge (an exact replica made of cars).

Hanging out at Carhenge (Alliance, Nebraska)

There's even trucks in the mix

View from afar...

Foamehenge (Virginia) photo from back in 2014

Oregon Trail
After we left Carhenge, we started thinking...what else could we see?  We both immediately thought....what about the Oregon Trail?  Isn't Chimney Rock around here somewhere?  For those of you that may have played the original Apple II game, you might remember that Chimney Rock was a major milestone on your quest to Oregon.  It was also usually where someone in your party died trying to ford the Platte River (or of dysentery).  Chimney rock was indeed right on our intended route, as was Scott's Bluff (another famous stop on the Oregon Trail).  We made the fun detours and took some great historical pictures of the area.  You can even stand in still-existing wagon ruts in the ground where actual wagons drove through over 150 years ago.

Hanging out at Chimney Rock
(You know that Oregon Trail music is going through your head)

Replica Wagon set up near Scott's Bluff

Signage indicating to look for wagon ruts

The vague depression to the left is a remnant wagon rut

View from top of Scott's Bluff

View north of Scott's Bluff, and of Platte River

Summit of Scott's Bluff

USGS Benchmark


View through the scope of Chimney Rock some 30-40 miles away

Nebraska High Point and Triple Point
After we left this little piece of Oregon Trail history, the day was still not over.  We continued South and figured already with both the ND and SD high points tagged, why not make it three with Nebraska.  We continued south and headed straight for the Southwestern corner of Nebraska on our way back towards Colorado.  Incidentally, Panorama Point is also located there.  I had already visited this spot a few years back, but we decided it warranted a new visit together.  After a few miles down dirt roads, we crested a very subtle hill and drove right up to the marker. After a short celebration, we continued towards the corner of the state and finally were able to tag a state tri-point.  This time, it was Nebraska/Colorado/Wyoming.  With our 4WD vehicle, we were able to drive right up to it.

Nebraska High Point - Panorama Point

Picture of Marker

NE/WY/CO Tri-Point

The actual triple point

The Benchmark

Some tri-point signage

As we drove off, the sun began to set, and we quickly made our way over to Cheyenne WY for the evening fireworks (it was the 4th after all).  We took these two final pictures as we left while the sun was dropping below the distant horizon.  Fitting photographs for a wonderful trip around the heartland....

Sunset over WY/NE/CO

Big Prairie Purple Sky at Sunset

4th of July Fireworks in Cheyenne...

4th of July Fireworks in Cheyenne...

Overall, it was one of my favorite mini-vacations.  We had so much fun just exploring goofy places, talking geology, and satisfying our curiosities.  There is so much to see in this world.  Get out there and explore!

....oh and I almost forgot.  That map I told you to remember.  Well here is the updated version....

(Part 2 coming soon....)