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"By all these lovely tokens September days are here,   
With summer's best of weather and autumn's best of cheer." 
~ Helen Hunt Jackson
We were thrilled with the warm, dry, sunny week we recently spent in Great Falls, Montana.

We are equally thrilled with the weather so far in Rapid City, South Dakota. Both places have enjoyed above-average temperatures into the 80s F. this month in one last gasp of summer.

Pedestrian bridge on bike path over a dry creek at Ellsworth AFB

We plan to stay in the Rapid City area about two weeks, depending on the weather. We're watching the forecasts carefully to make sure we get out of the upper Plains and Midwest before early winter temperatures and freezing precipitation arrive.


We left the Gateway FamCamp (Family Campground) at Malmstrom AFB last Wednesday and arrived at Ellsworth AFB on Thursday.

Most of the route was on I-90. We did about a third of the distance the first afternoon, spent the night in Billings, MT, and drove the remainder of the way on the second day.

Above and below:  two views of the Yellowstone River in Montana

Traffic was very light to moderate the entire way through Montana, Wyoming, and the western part of  South Dakota. "Rush hour" has a whole different meaning in these sparsely-populated states in cities with only 50,000-100,000 people.

Our travel weather was great both days -- sunny, breezy, and up to the 70s-80s F. in the afternoons even through high desert terrain ranging from 3,500-4,600 feet in elevation.

Forest fires caused enough haze the first day through Montana that we couldn't see the Crazy Mountains or the Beartooth Range clearly but visibility was good for driving and enjoying the scenery closer to us. We were able to see the Bighorn Range clearly in Wyoming the second day.

I couldn't see any snow on the peaks. Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota all had warmer than normal temperatures this summer and less rain than usual -- quite unlike where we spent the summer!

Some of the cottonwood trees along streams in Montana and Wyoming have turned bright yellow, gold, and orange:

Most of the fields and range lands along our route are already tan or brown. The only green grass is in low-lying areas near streams and land that's been irrigated.

Near the Wyoming-South Dakota border on I-90 we began seeing the dark evergreen trees that define the Black Hills National Forest:

We spent just one night on the road in transit.

Nope, it wasn't a WalMart or Sam's Club but a Cabela's store that is adjacent to Sam's Club in Billings and just off I-90.

The Cabela's we've visited out West have all had long parking spaces on one side of the building for RVs or trucks with trailers. They have nearby dump stations, potable water, kennels for dogs, and corrals for horses. The spaces are primarily for ranchers and other customers to use when shopping in the store but they all allow RVers to stay overnight if they want.

Like WalMart, Sam's Club, Cracker Barrel, and other chains, Cabela's knows it's good for business.

Jim saw this first -- train cars passing in front of rolling hills that look like a load of grain!

The Cabela's in Billings is particularly handy because this parking area is adjacent to the Sam's Club parking lot. We got permission to stay there, too, but their lot isn't as spacious as some others where we've stayed.

We shopped in both stores that evening. (It is good for business.) We hoped to find the louvered tailgate we want for the truck at Cabela's but they are on backorder there, too. I walked over to Sam's Club to get some items, thought of some more I wanted, and went back a second time.

Sam's Club has diesel at this location but there isn't room to maneuver with the camper attached. Jim unhooked the truck to fill the tank with diesel at $3.95/gallon, the lowest we've paid in a good while (still high historically, though). He also filled an extra five-gallon tank with diesel so we could get all the way from Billings to Ellsworth AFB the next day without having to stop at another service station with the camper attached. That's a handy trick he's used several times this summer.


We love this area in the spring and fall. This is at least the fifth time we've camped at Ellsworth AFB, which is just east of Rapid City in the town of Box Elder (box elders are a type of maple tree).

The longest weíve camped here was for three weeks last fall. The weather was exceptionally nice then, too.

Our only "complaint" now is the wind. We didn't have as much choice of a site this time and our position has the door and lots of windows to the west, the side where the wind is prevalent and the sun is hottest in the afternoon.

We arrived mid-afternoon last Thursday. Six sites were available out of about 28 back-in sites in the original part of the campground, which has three loops. There are seven new pull-through sites farther from the office and restrooms/laundry room; all those sites were full when we got here. That's OK. We prefer the older section.

In the four days we've been here the campground has stayed pretty full. We arrived just in time.

All the sites are relatively spacious and have concrete pads surrounded by grass. The cost is $20/night for full hookups, including 50-amp electricity. We were able to use another Air Force coupon for one free night. If we stay 14 days, we'll get another free night.

We get lots of TV stations with just our camper antenna (we don't have a satellite dish). We also have a strong Verizon phone and MiFi signal. The campground's free WiFi signal is rather weak at our site.

Some of the RV sites in the original campground loops

New section with seven pull-thru sites; the original sites are just beyond these.

Diesel is more expensive here than in Billings -- $4.07/gallon at Sam's Club, $4.11/gallon at Aafee's on base, $4.25/gallon and up at Flying J and other stations in town. South Dakota's fuel taxes must be higher.

We've seen several of the folks here who were at Malmstrom AFB when we were there; all are heading east to their homes or south for the winter.

Above and below:  Jim took these photos of a B-1 bomber flying over the base.

Temperatures have been in the mid-70s F. here so far, which is about ten degrees warmer than normal. In early September it was 100 F. for several days when we were about freezing in Alaska at Denali National Park! (I periodically tracked the weather in several places in the Lower 48 during the summer.)

It could easily drop down to freezing quickly here, too. We're staying alert to any forecasts about Arctic blasts from Canada so we can escape in time.


Although the temperatures are still summer-like, golden leaves and shorter days arrived in South Dakota before the official beginning of fall a couple days ago. I can't believe how soon it gets dark now -- by 7:30 PM this far east in the Mountain Time Zone.

The sunsets are pretty, and easily seen from our campground (above) or down at the ponds, but the early darkness is depressing to us after 20+ hours of sunshine a day in Alaska in June and early July.

We've had autumn colors and diminishing hours of daylight since the middle of August in Alaska and Canada. By the time the fall colors are gone in Virginia (late November) it'll probably be the longest period of time either of us has ever spent in this season.

That speck in the upper left sky is a B-1 bomber.

Same sunset, in another direction from the campground

Better that we find ourserves in eternal spring or fall, however, than eternal winter!

That's what folks from South Dakota to Alaska will soon be experiencing and Jim and I do our best to avoid. 


Meanwhile, we heard/read yesterday about extensive flooding this past week from high rainfall in the Mat-Su Valley, Kenai Peninsula, and Anchorage area.

Jim found a dramatic video of rushing water in a creek near Seward, where they've gotten an average of an inch of rain a day for the past month! The road to Exit Glacier is under water. A guy in a bulldozer was trying to move rocks so a bridge doesnít wash out. Talkeetna looks like itís underwater; residents have been evacuated from that town.

Here are some photos:  http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/talkeetna-evacuation-under-way-face-rising-water-video  and  http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/anchorage-makes-weather-channels-top-5-worst-summer-weather-2012

Also note that Anchorage topped the Weather Channelís list of U.S. cities with the worst summer 2012 weather! We can vouch for that but it hasn't "dampened" our enthusiasm to return again.

Iím wondering if the Yukon Territory got a lot of rain, too, and what the Alaska Highway looks like . . .

Sunset over one of the lakes on base

Sunset over the memorials to airmen from Ellsworth AFB who have died in training or combat

That's not all the bad-weather news in Alaska. There is an article on the Alaska Dispatch website re: the auto lottery at Denali National Park last weekend.

Each year a lottery is held to allow about 400 private vehicles to drive back as far as conditions allow on the park road for three days during the second or third week of September.

One day they had to wait until 10 AM for ice to melt on passes. Another day there were 60 MPH winds at Polychrome Pass and some portable toilets blew off the overlook. I don't know if the road was open all the way to Kantishna on any of those three days or nor. It snowed while we were there in early September and after we left we read about snow closing the road for one or more days.

Full moon, migrating birds, and the last remnants
of sunset over the Rushmore Center on base

Sunrises can be pretty interesting around here, too.

Apparently the snow has melted, or at least a bunch of it. This later article describes flooding near the entrance to Denali NP and deterioration of the Parks Hwy. at MP 240: http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/very-wet-end-tourist-season-around-denali-national-park

Before our trip to Alaska we would have barely noticed these news item. Now I hunt for them.

Weíre not only keenly aware of what's happening in places in Alaska where we visited, we genuinely care about what happens there. That's true of every place we've truly enjoyed visiting.


Because of the strong winds some days we have done our bike rides and walks either early in the morning or late in the afternoon/evening when the wind isn't blowing so hard.

Cody heads down toward one of the pretty ponds on base.
Paved multi-use paths loop around and between the ponds.



Jim is able to get lots of road miles on his bike on base and additional distance off-base on some nearby country roads. For those rides he can just leave from our campsite.

For other cycling options we'll have to drive to the nice bike path downtown and to the Black Hills, where he can ride the 109-mile crushed gravel Mickelson Trail or trails/roads through Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park.

I plan to do some hiking in the Black Hills with and without Cody, too.

At Ellsworth I like to walk him down to and around the four ponds shown in these pictures. They're half a mile from our campsite, between the Rushmore Center and the flight line. We can easily get in three or four miles that way or add more distance through residential areas on base.

Itís very dry here, which we like after a cold, wet summer in Alaska but this area really needs some rain. The grass is mostly brown and crunchy unless itís been irrigated. Two of the four ponds are only half full; the other two are normal depth.

This is one of the low ponds. The contraption in the foreground is a disc golf basket.
There is a whole disc golf course around the ponds but I haven't seen anyone playing.

In the fields on base there are still a few flowers blooming Ė white and yellow daisies, a few clover, purple vetch -- and dandelions!!

I canít believe the dandelions are still blooming after all the heat and drought this summer. Dandelions are the cockroaches of the plant kingdom. They're ubiquitous, growing anywhere and everywhere, and they're hard to kill.

Above and below:  red fox near the ponds

We've been busy with lots of other things since we arrived here including mingling with other folks in the campground, running various errands, shopping, steam cleaning the Cameo carpeting, making further travel plans, and beginning our search for a new puppy.

New puppy?! Yup, that's a distinct possibility after we get back to Virginia.

Typical Lab:  Cody loves swimming in the ponds.

Because we're "tripped out" from all the driving to and from Alaska we might stay at our house long enough to adopt a pup, get all of its shots, do initial training, and maybe spend the winter in the Southeast instead of the Southwest since our trip would have to be shorter.

We've talked to some other folks about military campgrounds they like in Georgia and Florida. We're ready for something different than our usual snow-bird treks to southern Arizona and Texas.

Next entry:  a beautiful day hiking and cycling in Spearfish Canyon in the northern Black Hills

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil