MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - We're back from a vacation that allowed us to see beautiful vistas, historic landmarks, waterfalls, and lots of animals, wild horses, grizzly and black bears, moose, elk, pronghorns, bison, prairie dogs, and lots of birds. Wow, Americans are blessed to live in a beautiful nation, and there is no better way to see it than an old-fashioned driving vacation.
Our drive this year took us through parts of 15 states, but the focus was on three national parks, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, and Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. But along the way, we stopped frequently to see landmarks and natural areas. We also avoided interstates whenever possible.
However, this year hurricane season caused us to modify our driving routes. Our original plan called for us to head through Memphis, then drive due west to Oklahoma, then due north on non-interstates through the heartlands of the Midwest all the way to western North Dakota. But weather reports had the remnants of Hurricane Harvey dumping enough rain on Memphis to cause serious flooding problems just as we were scheduled to arrive there. So we drove through Nashville instead, getting through just a few hours before Harvey was due to cause flooding there as well. On the way home, we took a less drastic detour to dodge the milder remnants of Hurricane Irma. But except for a few hours on the first day going and the next-to-the-last day returning, the weather was terrific.
Our detour farther north put us into Missouri, and it's impossible to visit Missouri without thinking of Mark Twain, my favorite American author. (Twain and I share a birthday, and we also share the experience of writing newspaper editorials, something I loved but Twain loathed.) A side trip took us to the Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site on the banks of Mark Twain Lake in Mark Twain State Park. (I think the Show Me state motto may be short for "Show Me Everything about Mark Twain.)
Despite the hype, the side trip was well worth it. The historic site has the two-room cabin where Samuel Clemens was born in 1838, as well as a lot of Twain memorabilia. It's on the shores of the huge and beautiful lake, worth a stop for nature lovers even without the history, and it didn't hurt that we saw Bald Eagles, White Pelicans, Ospreys and other birds during our visit.
After leaving the Twain site, we took U.S. 36 west. Not only does this allow you to bypass Kansas City, but it allows you to see lovely rolling hills and farmlands while avoiding the truck-dominated I-70. Part U.S. 36 is dubbed the "Pony Express Highway" because it skirts parts of the old Pony Express route. The speed limit is 65 and it is four-lanes, so it isn't much slower than the interstate and much more interesting.
Heading north on U.S. 83 in Nebraska, we came across Valentine National Wildlife Refuge a must stop for birders and other nature lovers. Valentine is a birder's paradise, but like many such sites, it depends on the time of the year. It is huge, about 13,000 acres, and we had time only for a couple of short drives. But we still spotted in the area a flight of American Avocets (see photos), adult and juvenile Bald Eagles, Western Meadowlarks galore, and several duck species.
The prairie grasslands in that part of northwest Nebraska were coated with yellow from blooming wildflowers, and the colors had us oohing and ahhing every time we topped a hill. Hawks were everywhere, mostly Red-Tailed, but also Cooper's, Prairie, Merlin and Northern Harriers (see photos).
Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota was a new national park for Julie and me, and well worth the trip. It reminded us of Badlands National Park because of the rugged, worn landscape etched out over millennia. Frankly, we chose it because North Dakota was one of just two of the Lower 48 states we had never visited (Oregon is the other). But it was well worth the trip.
It is really two parks about 50 miles apart, surrounded by the Little Missouri National Grasslands, the largest national grasslands in the nation. The southern unit of the National Park is the more visited, probably because it is just off Interstate 94 -- in fact, a rest stop on the interstate has a wonderful overlook of the badlands in the park. (You can see for yourself from a webcam at the overlook)
Among the highlights of the south unit are the herds of wild horses that roam the park (see photos). We saw several small groups of them while driving through the park on a 36-mile scenic loop. These feral horses are believed to be the descendants of escaped horses from ranches in the area and have existed in the area for scores of years. For years National Park officials tried to remove the horses, but in 1970 decided they were an essential part of the park's history and let them stay.
While ranching in the area in the 1880s, Theodore Roosevelt wrote: "In a great many -- indeed, in most -- localities there are wild horses to be found, which, although invariably of domestic descent, being either themselves runaways from some ranch or Indian outfit, or else claiming such for their sires and dams, yet are quite as wild as the antelope on whose domain they have intruded." (The park service still occasionally culls the herds to control their numbers, and I believe it's possible to adopt one of the horses. For details, visit the park website.)
There are a couple of entertaining prairie dog "towns" just off the scenic drive. It's fun to watch them interact. A hint: If traffic allows, watch from your car; the prairie dogs will allow you to get much closer to them in a car than on foot.
The north unit of the national park is worth the extra driving time. It has a 14-mile scenic drive overlooking the Little Missouri River, the badlands, and the grasslands. Bison roam free in both units of the park (see photos), and we had distant views of Elk and Mule Deer along the Little Missouri River in the north unit.
If you are lucky enough to visit the park, check out the three-room Maltese Cross Cabin -- the actual cabin in which Roosevelt lived while visiting the nearby ranch in which he was a part owner. It is named for the Maltese Cross brand used by the ranch. It is now at the south unit Visitors Center.
Several of the states we have visited in the West are states we were primarily driving through to get somewhere else. But for us, North Dakota was not on the way to anywhere -- we had to plan a trip there to see it. Now that we've been, we're glad; it's a beautiful state and Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a great destination. Wild horses couldn't keep us from going back.
- Alabama Coastal BirdFest, Oct. 4 through the 7: There still may be openings for some of the dozens of planned activities that are part of the Alabama Coastal BirdFest, and I recommend it to birders and nature lovers. Activities include workshops on birding and nature photography, birding walks, paddling trips, and scenic wildlife cruises around the Mobile Delta and Mobile Bay. The bird walks range from easy to challenging. It also isn't just about birds, there will be plenty of opportunities to see and learn about wildflowers and other wildlife.
To see a schedule of activities and registration information, click here.
- Alabama Ornithological Society fall meeting, Oct. 13 through the 15: The Alabama Ornithological Society holds its fall meeting each year on Dauphin Island, one of the best sites to see fall and spring migratory birds and shorebirds in the United States. While the meeting is for AOS members, it only costs $25 per year to join. That entitles birders to attend AOS fall and spring meetings on Dauphin Island and a winter meeting elsewhere around the state. Registration and banquet fees for the meetings are modest as well.
Each of those meetings includes several birding field trips and knowledgeable speakers. Membership also entitles you to a copy of the group's newsletter, The Yellowhammer, as well as other occasional publications on birding. Best of all, it allows those interested in birding to interact with some of the best-informed birders in Alabama and to be part of an organization that promotes birding and nature protection.
The fall meeting speaker this year is Dr. Frank R. Moore, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Southern Mississippi University. He will speak on bird migration, as well as lead a field trip to Fort Morgan. Other field trips during the weekend will be led by Andrew Haffenden, who leads birding trips around the world and who makes Dauphin Island his home. Sign up for the meeting at the AOS website.
- The North Alabama Birdwatchers Society has announced its full schedule of field trips from now through May 2018.
- The Birmingham Audubon Society also has many field trips each year, and several of them are well out of the Birmingham area. Despite its name, Birmingham Audubon is really a statewide organization, supporting ornithological research around the state. It also has several outstanding seminars on nature and birding during the year. Its website is: birminghamaudubon.org
- The Alabama Birding Trails web page has a comprehensive list of upcoming birding and nature-related activities around the state that is much more detailed than space allows here. Most of the activities are open to the public and many are free. See it at alabamabirdingtrails.com