Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands & Devil’s Tower: Wait for Autumn Bargains

Mt. Rushmore. The flags of all 50 states line the main approach (see below), but I couldn’t resist this Texas flag view.

Mt. Rushmore should be on every American’s bucket list, and judging by the crowds and prices every summer, it probably is. If you can wait till fall, though, you’ll find the crowds gone and hotel prices much more reasonable. My husband and I did just that, waiting until the third week in October. Yes, the Flintstone Village was closed as was the faux Independence Hall and some mining-themed amusement parks, but we didn’t miss them at all. The Mt. Rushmore National Memorial was open, as was the Badlands National Park, Custer State Park (including Needles Highway), and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. We stayed at K Bar S Lodge an terrific, rustic-but-lovely hotel just outside of Keystone, South Dakota, 30 minutes from the Rapid City Airport, where we could see Mt. Rushmore in the distance and hike a nearby abandoned mine. Yes, it was chilly at night and, yes, we risked things like Needles Highway being closed for the winter. But, the flight from DFW to Rapid City, SD, is an easy two hour and fifteen minute non-stop flight on American so we could monitor the weather forecast. [Although pricey in dollars, the flight was a cheap award using our British Airways Avios. We use BA Avios for those short hauls since BA is distance-based and charges us less miles for those flights that AA does.]

Mt. Rushmore exceeded my expectations. Not only are the famous statues impressive, but so is the park itself. The buildings and approach are sleek and stylish, the walkways around the base of the mountain pretty and well-maintained. We really enjoyed a free return visit at night to see the carvings illuminated. The main walkway is not lit until you reach the flags, though, so bring a flashlight.

Mt. Rushmore is especially magical at night, and free!

Custer State Park lies a thirty minute drive south of Keystone. Although we missed the September bison roundup at the park we got to see lots of bison up close in their winter habitat. Pronghorn antelope, big horn sheep, elk and whitetail deer also call the park home. Entry is $20/vehicle for a 1-7 day pass.

Bison in Custer State Park
Pronghorn antelope in Custer State Park

Needles Highway (Hwy 87) runs through the Cathedral Spires Area of Custer State Park. Sitting around a campfire at our lodge one night, I mentioned my huge disappointment in being told on check-in that Needles was closed for the season. The mother-daughter pair who’d offered to share their s’mores with us did even more to make my night when they informed me that they’d driven the Highway that day and that it was open and easily drivable despite a sign at the pay booth saying otherwise. Sure enough, the next day proved them right and we enjoyed a spectacular drive.

Spires along Needles Highway

Another day, we drove an hour and twenty minutes west to Badlands National Park. Entering through a vast prairie dog town, we found an otherworldly landscape of painted canyons. We pulled over to hike out to high observation points providing sweeping pastel vistas and explored walkways through the desert where big horn sheep fed nearby. Like Custer, entry is $20/car for a 1-7 day pass. The passes are not combinable as one is a state and one is a national park.

Bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park
The Badlands: immense and otherworldly

We crossed the South Dakota border into Wyoming for our final destination, Devil’s Tower National Monument, a little over two hours’ drive from Keystone. Made famous in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and wildly popular with motorcyclists and other tourists, we arrived to find only a few cars in one of its two large parking lots.

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
We found another large prairie dog town near Devil’s Tower. They’re adorable, but be careful getting too close or letting pets near: The prairie dogs have plague!

A ranger assured me that, in summer, the lots were full and the web site warns of difficult parking. She particularly noted the craziness at Devil’s tower when the Sturgis Annual Motorcycle Rally is in swing. A half million motorcycle enthusiasts descend on Sturgis, SD, for the famous summer rally. That group makes an excursion to Devil’s Tower. The Sturgis rally lasts ten days and is set for August 4-13 this year. Check the calendar to avoid this horde unless you’re going to the rally.  On this gorgeous October day, however, we saw more birds, squirrels and rabbits than people as we hiked the perimeter of the tower. Entry to Devil’s Tower is $15/car, $10/motorcycle, $5/person arriving on foot or bicycle.

For a fun, economical, but limited-choice dinner, try the antique-filled Alpine Inn in Hill City, a short drive through wooded hills from Keystone. Dinner entree choices are large steak, small steak or vegetarian. [Dinner menu: 6oz. filet mignon = $11.95, 9oz. filet mignon =$13.95 (both steaks served with baked potato, wedge salad and Texas toast); German dumplings and cheese with vegetables = $11.95] Lunch offers more variety. The Alpine Inn is renowned for its steaks and its house-made desserts. It’s closed Sundays and doesn’t accept credit cards, but it does have an on-site ATM machine. It’s popular, so make reservations.

Finally, if you like to gamble, South Dakota is for you. In addition to casinos, nearly every business establishment from doughnut shops to nail salons has a slot machine or two. Kitschy Deadwood is at or near the top of gaming towns in South Dakota. We’re not gamblers and didn’t get much out of casino-filled Deadwood’s recreated western town brimming with casinos, but we met people who loved it and went every year. So, if that’s your thing, Deadwood awaits. The people are friendly and the hotels offer some pretty great deals to lure in the gamblers. Enjoy!

 

Norvegian Rat Saloon [Dutch Harbor, Alaska]

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Yes, the Norvegian Rat Saloon spells its name with a “v” rather than a “w.” Sometimes. The sign on the low-slung waterfront building uses a “v,” but their menu has both spellings on the cover and we saw an ad with the “w” spelling, so who knows? Sitting just across the road from the Safeway, a local landmark, the Norvegian Rat Saloon offers a casual setting: a walk-up bar, wooden tables for diners, 2 pool tables and shuffle board table, a scruffy outdoor seating area on the water, complete with a WWII bunker, crab pots fire pit and an uninviting little “smoking area” shack.

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20160907_144305 20160907_144439 20160907_144451  The selection of draft beers, while not large, is surprisingly good and we were going to stay the minute David saw the taps. Two cold Arrogant Bastards later ($6 each) and we were happily seated next to a shipmate. We hadn’t planned to eat, but were really impressed with her fish and chips ($13) and the huge Hog Island pulled-pork sandwich ($12.50) of the guy sitting next to us. When we heard a fresh batch of off-menu red king crab was in the works, we put in our order. (I believe the crab was a special targeted at the cruise ship crowd. Lucky us!)

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Fish and chips

In 10 minutes, we had a plate of two large crab legs and a body section, all full of perfectly-cooked, perfectly fresh chunks of meat. The crab was served with nothing but a dipping bowl of small butter and a shell tool. Delicious! Crab: $19.50.

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Norvegian Rat Saloon
1906 Airport Bech Rd.
(907) 581-4455
M-Sat. 11am-2am
Sun. 12pm-10pm

Dutch Harbor (Aleutian Islands), Alaska

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The first stop on our trans-Pacific Vancouver-to-Tokyo cruise was Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands. Dutch Harbor was a substitute stop, replacing the originally-scheduled Petropavlosk, Russia, on the Kamchatka Peninsula. I’d been really looking forward to the remote Russian stop and, while I was disappointed to miss the Kamchatka, Dutch Harbor was a happy surprise for me, personally. My grandfather (my father’s father) had been stationed there in WWII as a Navy dentist. My dad still has a scrapbook of his father’s from that time and I’d taken a photo of every page, eager to see if I could find anything recognizable in this remote port.

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Dutch Harbor turned out to be a hit on all fronts for us. The only downside was that sunrise came an hour later than the day before so that, although we docked at 7am and David and I were ready to disembark at 7:30am, it remained pitch black outside. Hmm. Somehow we’d missed the captain’s notice that sunrise would come at 8:28am that day. So, we twiddled our thumbs until first light, then headed out for our planned hike up nearby Mt. Ballyhoo to the ruins of Fort Schwatka.

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The local chamber of commerce had set up a table just outside the gangway with maps and other information. Unfortunately, they had forgotten the land use permits which we were told to buy ($6pp) before hiking any of the local trails. Someone had gone to fetch the permits, but the lady in charge told us to go on and, if stopped, just say they didn’t have them yet and could we pay whomever stopped us. Sounded good to us, so we headed off. (No one did stop us, so the hiking was free.)

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Wellused map of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor provided by local chamber of commerce. Cruise port is at top right.

Before we even left the parking lot by the ship dock, we spotted our first bald eagle perched on the rocky mountain face opposite the ship. This boded well for our wildlife spotting! Sure enough, we saw many more during the day and someone likened them to pigeons in other cities. There are even signs in Dutch Harbor and Unalaska warning of eagle attack if you venture too close to nests! That was a new one.

The road to Fort Schwatka lay a short distance to our right as we walked out of the cruise port. The road is gravel and well-maintained, but a fairly steep 9° uphill via several switchbacks. All in all we spent 3 hours hiking up the mountain and around the old ruins, with a distance of about 6.5 miles. The views are spectacular at the top and we lucked into pretty good weather, although clouds snagged on the very top of the fort ruins and we got some drizzle. All the old wooden buildings have collapsed and no structure was identifiable as the places in my grandfather’s photos I carried on my phone. We could place some rock formations, though, and everything about the terrain looked the same. The old bunkers, dug a surprising way into the stone mountain, are still mostly intact and open for exploring.

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The appearance of a red fox was extra fun as we wandered the ruins. He seemed more curious than afraid of us and actually seemed to wait at one point for us to catch up. Then, he ducked behind a bush and ended up behind us, continuing to follow for a bit. What a great encounter! (…and fun to see that my grandfather had a photo of a similar encounter. It seems foxes in Dutch Harbor have long been used to having humans around.)

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As we headed back down Mt. Ballyhoo, we spotted a whale feeding in the harbor and a nearby group of twenty or so otters floating on their backs. Smaller water birds abounded as well. With the fresh, crisp air and the smell of wildflowers, it was a beautiful hike.

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We had to pass back by the ship to continue our explore of Dutch Harbor and Unalaska, so we ducked in for a quick early lunch. Since Dutch Harbor is a commercial port, not really a tourist destination, the only transport were local school buses and vans the town dedicated to the cruise ship until the schoolchildren needed to be picked up and 12 taxis that serve the local population. We had to laugh when we learned that the buses took everyone to the Dutch Harbor Safeway grocery store. So much for exotic cruise locales! A guide on the bus announced they were going on to the old Russian Orthodox church in Unalaska. When we saw the huge double line of people waiting at Safeway for the bus, we opted to stay on and ride to the church. [Nomenclature is a little confusing. “Dutch Harbor” is the name the military and locals use for the whole area. There’s a Dutch Harbor post office near the Safeway and an Unalaska post office across the Captain’s Harbor bridge on the Russian church side of things. Technically, though, both sides are in the town of Unalaska.]

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Long lines of cruise passengers waiting for schoolbuses in the Safeway parking lot

My grandfather visited this church back in the 1940’s and little appeared to have changed since then. I got a kick out of getting my photo taken there as he and a friend had.

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Then, we wandered back down what passes for the main street of Unalaska (lots of small, ramshackle houses, the modest courthouse, and a restaurant) before taking a detour across a footbridge spanning a small river. There, we got a great view of salmon spawning as bald eagles glided above. A perfect mini-Alaska vacation!

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Salmon spawning in Unalaska river

 

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Salmon spawning near Russian Orthodox church

Across the bridge and to the left is the Unalaska Public Library where we’d been told free, if slow, wi-fi was available. True to billing, we managed to connect momentarily, but most sites resulted in the dread spinning donut of death. Oh well, the world could no doubt manage without us. Phone service was actually reasonably good, though, with my regular AT&T service, and I was able to get a call out to my parents and one to my older son who’d returned from an Iceland/Norway trip after our departure and from whom I was dying to hear details. Voices were clear although we were cut off several times.

We decided to walk back across a large bridge spanning Captain’s Harbor to Safeway. Bunker Hill loomed across the road to our left with clear, shallow water full of starfish in the harbor to our right. We saw two more eagles nesting on Bunker Hill while another glided nearby. We’d been lucky with the weather, but wind began to pick up as we reached the coast at the base of Bunker Hill. The temperature reached a delightful 56F. [Online weather forecasts I’d scanned prior to leaving home showed rain to be nearly a daily possibility in Dutch Harbor, and even my grandfather’s old letters and postcards spoke of the rain, snow, howling wind and even earthquakes.]

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Starfish in Captain’s Harbor

Walking the long curve of coastline until we were just across from the Safeway, we reached huge stacks of crab pots interspersed with a series of WWII bunkers. Just beyond is a local bar/restaurant called Norvegian Rat Saloon. Dutch Harbor is featured in the popular show, “Deadliest Catch” and we were eager to try fresh king crab while here which we’d heard the Norvegian Rat prepared. However, the cruise director had warned that on the only previous stop the ship had made here, the lines were long and the crab sold out early. Of course, that had probably been at lunch and here we were mid-afternoon. We found a nearly empty parking lot and not a line in sight. We assumed the crab was long-gone, but seeing good beer on draft (always a draw for David), we couldn’t resist. When a tablemate from the ship informed us that a fresh batch of red king crab was being prepared, we happily placed our order. Ten minutes later, we tucked into a plate of crab, simply cooked and served with nothing but drawn butter. Absolutely perfect! [I’ll review the Norvegian Rat Saloon separately.]

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Crab pots

Unfortunately, our break at the Norvegian Rat Saloon left us with too little time to comfortably visit the small World War II Visitor Center which lay between us and the ship. I really regret missing it as I had some questions about my grandfather’s photographs, but something had to give and I’m hoping to contact them when we get back home. If it comes down to seeing the museum or the actual locations, I’m glad we made the choices we did. It’s the nature of cruise stops to be left wishing for a longer stay. I’d say “Next time!”, but that seems unlikely: A local told us Dutch Harbor is a 2-3 hour, $1000 flight from Anchorage in a small plane through often-turbulent skies.
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Cruise port details:

Ships dock on the “Dutch Harbor” side of the town of Unalaska, 1.3 miles north of the airport and the WWII visitors center. The area is industrial.

Free shuttles via 4 local school buses and a few vans to the Safeway were provided by Celebrity. Later buses extended their route to the Russian church. The buses and vans pick up on the dock a short distance from the gangway. Although the ship docked at 7am, buses were not available until 10am. Two of the four school buses stopped running at 2:30pm as they were needed to pick up school children. Vans continued to shuttle passengers.

There is no handicap-friendly transport for wheelchairs, etc. available on the island so you have to be able to negotiate the few stairs of a school bus or van.

12 taxis (some of which are vans) are the total sum of cabs in Dutch Harbor. A couple were waiting in the dark when we docked.

Our hike up Mt. Ballyhoo and back to the ship was about 6.5 miles. We walked approximately another 3.5 miles on our ramble from the Russian Orthodox Church back to Safeway.

There are no sidewalks in Dutch Harbor and we were warned to stay on the shoulder of roads (mostly paved and in good shape) and be alert. Most of the traffic is pick-up trucks and larger commercial trucks.

Lots of “Deadliest Catch” t-shirts, sweatshirts, etc. and other souvenirs are for sale in the store next to Safeway by the red-roofed Aleutian Hotel and in Safeway itself.