The Old Meeker Ranch

We’ve geocached in 40 states. The only areas we haven’t explored are New England and the Pacific Northwest. But out of all that, our favorite geocaching destination is the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills have it all – scenery, open spaces, mines, ghost towns, trails and more places to explore than you can do in one trip. And there are geocaches everywhere. You could geocache and explore there for the rest of your life and never get bored. They have everything from drive ups to day long quests. One of those quests took us to an abandoned homestead nestled deep in the hills. Locals call it the Old Meeker Ranch.

First look on the road in

First look

You can drive to within a mile on a forest service road with a locked gate. Then you walk in. This is the first view you get when you come over the rise. The pictures simply don’t do it justice. It is a breathtaking scene.

Natasha with the cache

Natasha with the ammo can find. The geocache was called “The Old Meeker Ranch”, GC1CTMH. Unbeknownst to us, the owner had deactivated it the day we found it. It might still be there, but we’ve got the last entry in the cache log.

The 278 acre ranch area was homesteaded in 1882 by Frank Meeker, who was a rider for the Pony Express in his younger days. He named his spread Willow Creek and that is still the name of the year round stream that flows through the middle of it.

The front door and barn

The front door and the barn. The barn is relatively new, built by the last owners in the 1950’s.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE – The Pony Express carried mail to/from St. Joseph, MO and Sacramento,CA. Letters cost $10 an ounce. The 120 riders covered the 1,900 mi (3,100 km) route in 10 days. Most of the riders were teenagers, some as young as 14. They rode legs of 75-100 miles, going at breakneck speed day and night. Switching horses at way stations that were about 10 miles apart, the riders kept to the timetable despite weather, terrain, outlaws, hostile Indians and numbing fatigue. Although successful, the Pony Express was only in operation from April 1860 to October 1861. It was replaced by the transcontinental telegraph. We don’t know what Frank Meeker did in the 21 years between the Pony Express and the Willow Creek homestead, but he must have been one tough hombre.**

These are original buildings from the late 1880’s. Although preserved and open to the public, the ranch has been bedeviled by vandalism in recent years. So far, it’s been broken windows and torn exterior clapboard, which have been fixed by workers. In fact, the day we were there, a BLM crew came out to inspect the place and do any needed repairs.

The ranch changed hands numerous times, ending up with the Davis family in 1952. They built the new barn and worked the spread until 1974. It spent 30 years in limbo and disrepair before becoming part of the Black Hills National Forest in 2004.

The dilapidated kitchen

We’re explorers. Locked doors and “No Entry” signs drive us nuts. One of the great things about the ranch is that you can go inside the buildings, including the house. When the last family moved on, they left behind a treasure trove of artifacts – cans, jars, newspapers and more – on shelves and in closets. These aren’t props put there by someone. They’re the real deal. Use caution, of course. The upper floors aren’t safe. Watch out for weak spots in the structures and be alert for an occasional rattlesnake. Also keep in mind that this is wild country with black bears and mountain lions. If you have pets or small children, keep them close.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took over in 2004 and scheduled the property for demolition in 2006. A grass roots effort led by local artist Jon Crane and the Black Hills Historic Preservation Trust saved the ranch. They also raised funds for preservation work, an effort that is ongoing as we write this. A dedicated corps of volunteers working alongside the BLM and spearheaded by Historicorps keeps the ranch in a state of “arrested decay” for the public to visit.

Going out the way we came in

Looking at the way back. If you’re are a photographer, this place should be on your bucket list. Here are some great photos taken on the Old Meeker Ranch.

For your GPS. N43.8042º W109.5554º. These coordinates will put you right at the center of the ranch. Click on them for a Google map.

The Old Meeker Ranch is a unique historical treasure. It is one of the few ranch homesteads in the country that is maintained, open to the public and freely accessible. Concerned citizens, historians, artists, archaeologists, businesses, trusts and government agencies work hard to keep it that way. Please enjoy it responsibly and safely.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Featured

Welcome to our blog

NOTE TO READERS: Here’s a few items to guide you on our blog.

This post is called a sticky post and will always be the blog home. Our most recent post is directly under this one and then they roll in date sequence from most recent to earliest.

In WordPress, there are posts and there are pages. They look the same but are listed differently. Posts show up in the sidebar and are listed by date on the blog. You have to search or surf the blog to check them out. Pages, on the other hand, reside in a menu called a page bar at the bottom of the header. Those hyperlinks will take you right to that page.

Our page bar has seven separate pages of background and instruction on geocaching and related topics. The titles are self-explanatory. They are more than enough to get you started.

To find specific blog posts you might be interested in, be sure to check out the tag word cloud search at the bottom of the sidebar.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Hi and welcome to our newly updated blog. Designed as a companion to our website, we use it for shorter pages than we typically put on the site.

We affectionately refer to each other as Boris and Natasha (usually with “dahlink” at the end) – retirees, snowbirds, explorers, geocachers, munzee and benchmark hunters, history lovers, sometime photographers, freelance writers and lifelong learners who can show up almost anywhere.

KidsRN in action

Natasha is relentless in her quest for geocaches. Here, she gives it her all in the Black Hills. Mt. Rushmore is in the upper left hand corner.

Our vision for Off The Beaten Path is a family friendly blog that promotes interest in outdoor activities, curiosity about the world around us and lifelong learning. Our vehicle for that is geocaching and related activities, plus all that goes with them.

You would be hard-pressed to find another activity which is more fun, positive, educational and family friendly than geocaching and its siblings. My 88 year old mother has been out with us. Our grandkids (now 6 and 4) went out with us in their strollers. They really love hunting munzees and can both handle a smart phone like you wouldn’t believe. Some of the best times I ever had as a Dad were with my youngest son hunting down geocaches in the wilds of Montana and Wyoming. When I was teaching school, I used it in my math classes to teach all kinds of things.

One thing you can be sure of – the pages of this blog and our other related sites will develop skills and take you places you would have never known about otherwise.  The only adverse effect we’ve encountered is G.A.S. – Geocaching Addiction Syndrome.  Once it gets in your blood, it’s hard to walk away.

Our adventures have taken us to ghost towns, caves, mountain tops, waterfalls and more out of the way places than we can recall.  It’s been a hoot.  We’ve geocached in 38 states and have a plan in place to finish all 50 by the end of 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 (or thereabouts).

You never know what you might find here. We love forts, battlefields, ghost towns, one of a kind diners, cheeseburgers, skin-on French fries, anything to do with National Parks and anything else that’s off the beaten path. The tougher, longer, higher, creepier or more calorie-laden it is, the better we like it. Of course, we do normal stuff, too. We’ll mix things up to keep it interesting.

KidsRN at Mt. Rushmore cache site.

Mission accomplished safe and sound. No humans were injured in the production of this blog.

This is an open blog for families, adventurers, explorers, vagabonds and anybody else who might share our passions.  There’s no arm chair traveling here.  We’ve been to all the places we blog about and most of the pictures are ours.

See you in the blogosphere. …Boris and Natasha

The Wild Turkey Geocache

Hi again,

It’s winter. Even by Minnesota standards, it’s a brutal one. However, we’re in Tucson for four months. One of our favorite places to explore is the Santa Rita Mountains about 40 miles south of the city. Knifing into those mountains is Madera Canyon in the Coronado National Forest. Going from 2,000 feet at the bottom to 9,000 feet on top of Mt. Wrightson, it goes through nine different climactic zones – the equivalent of driving from Arizona to Canada. There are lots of geocaches but few gimmees. Most involve some hiking in steep terrain and many involve some rock climbing. This was one of them.

Natasha at the Wild Turkey geocache.

The lovely Natasha near Ground Zero of the Wild Turkey geocache. The container is a mini-bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon minus the bourbon. Just the log. It’s located in the rocks you can see in the picture and was a tricky hide. It was a challenging two mile hike up the Bog Springs Trail but the scenery was worth it. As you can see, we’ve got our back country gear with us and navigated with our Garmin Dakota 20’s. No cell phone coverage up here. Along the way, we got another geocache and a letterbox. Today, we cruised successfully off the beaten path.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #2

Hi again,

We started this series last year and have been working through it slowly but surely. Since then, our Top 10 have changed a bit as we have been to some really cool places.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook Cache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain Cache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands Cache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls Cache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs Geocache, Dragoon, AZ

#4 – Civil War Entrenchments Cache, Snake Springs, PA

#3 – Big Spring Cache , Guttenberg, IA

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might be distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #2 cache made the list because of the unique geocaching environment it is located in – an abandoned highway tunnel on an abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. From July, 2011 – the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache.

RaysHillGeocache

This is the eastern portal of the tunnel. The gold arrow points to the cache location. After you bike through the tunnel, it’s up and over. Footing can be treacherous. The small dot of light in the center of the blackness is the other end. Don’t let that fool you. The center 2/3 of the tunnel is pitch black and requires a strong bike light to negotiate safely. You’ll also experience a 20 degree temperature drop, which is welcome on a hot July day. At 3,532 feet, it was the shortest of the seven tunnels on the turnpike. It’s also the only portal to not have ventilation fans above the opening. All of these tunnels were dark and dingy, with cement lining and recessed lighting. Headlights were required even during the day. Believe it or not, 18 wheelers used to rumble through this tunnel in both directions. Before it was abandoned in 1968, my family had driven through it many times. The tunnel is part of an unofficial bike trail on a 13 mile stretch of weather-beaten asphalt called the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.

When people think of my native Pennsylvania, they usually think Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – urban areas. In fact, most of Pennsylvania is heavily wooded and mountainous. The Allegheny Mountains run northeast to southwest through the center half of the state. Part of these mountains run through Somerset and Westmoreland counties and are called the Laurel Highlands. This is the area where I grew up and it looks much as it did 250 years ago – trackless woods as far as the eye can see. From the earliest days of exploration to modern times, the Alleghenies have challenged those who tried to tame them with roads, canals and tracks.

RaysHill1885

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel in 1885 with the geocache location shown. The original turnpike followed the right-of-way for the Southern Pennsylvania Railroad. Over the course of 10 years, a lot of work was done on the railroad, including nine tunnels, and a lot of money was spent but the project was never completed. The line and its tunnels spent over 40 years in legal and financial limbo until the whole right-of-way was bought by the Turnpike Commission in 1937. Construction started in 1938 using the railroad bed and seven of the nine tunnels. The man at the center of the photo with his foot on the railroad tie is Andrew Carnegie, the principal financial backer of the doomed venture.

A year before Pearl Harbor, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania opened a four lane concrete toll road through these mountains that would eventually run east-west from border to border – the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Modeled after the German Autobahn, it was the first high speed limited access superhighway in the United States. Construction started in October 1938. The first 160 mile section from Carlisle to Irwin opened for business on October 1, 1940. Construction and expansion have been ongoing ever since. The original design envisioned speeds of up to 100 mph. The road was designed to maximize straightaways while minimizing curves and hills. This is where the tunnels came in, but that design parameter didn’t last long.

RaysHill1940

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel on September 30, 1940 – the day before the opening. The future geocache location is marked. The turnpike was a victim of its own success. In its first year of operation, two million cars traveled on it. The road was four lanes but the tunnels were two lanes and very narrow and dark. Within 10 years, traffic jams at the tunnels became a regular occurrence. By the late 1950’s, the flow of traffic was significantly inhibited and the Turnpike Commission embarked on an aggressive program to remedy the tunnel jams. Between 1964 and 1968, three of the tunnels were abandoned. Four others had second parallel tubes drilled. In fact, an entire 13 mile section of the roadway around Breezewood, PA was abandoned and reconstructed on a new right-of-way. This took the Rays Hill Tunnel and the nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel out of action. The entire abandoned section, along with its two tunnels, became the Pike2Bike Trail in 2001. The third abandoned tunnel, Laurel Hill, is 50 miles to the west. It has been off limits since it was taken out of service in 1964.

So here we are on a hot July day looking for tunnel geocaches compliments of Andrew Carnegie and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Although little has become of the Pike2Bike, the route is a popular and fairly easy 26 mile ride round trip. The road can get a bit nasty at points so a helmet is a must. Likewise, you’ll need a strong bike light to go through the tunnels. Actually, two is better. Mount a flamethrower on the handlebars. That will light the way ahead. Also wear a headlamp, so you see what you are looking at as you look around you. Tunnel biking can be challenging. There are pools of water everywhere, some torn up pavement and the occasional rock or branch in the way. There are about a dozen geocaches along the 13 mile route. Each tunnel has a virtual munzee. If you go to the eastern end, you’ll pass the parking apron of the old Cove Valley Travel Plaza. It was also bypassed and abandoned but everything was torn down. You can still see the foundations of the old Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. It has a geocache nicely tucked away in it.

RaysHillMap

This is a schematic of the western end of the Pike2Bike. The Sideling Hill Tunnel is five miles east of the Rays Hill Tunnel. There are a couple of trail heads and a service road called Oregon Road that allow access to the pike. Here’s a link with their description and location. The trail is safe from predators, both four legged and two legged, and is patrolled sporadically by state, county and local law enforcement. Families and groups of all ages and abilities bike on it, including the tunnels.

The nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel was the longest tunnel on the turnpike at almost 7,000 feet. You can’t see the other end because there’s a slight rise and fall built into the roadway. You’ll be biking in pitch black darkness for almost a mile. While not officially open to the public, the inner workings of the tunnels are accessible to the adventurous. Steps, passageways, ventilators, control rooms and other assorted man-made features are waiting for the curious. It’s a great introduction to the world of “urban exploration” or URBEX, which we dabble in occasionally. Take your light and wear your helmet. Slow and easy does it, both inside the tunnel and out.

There’s no water or facilities on the trail. Summers here are hot and muggy, so plan accordingly. In the fall, the colors are spectacular. A local bike shop does tours of the pike and the tunnels. Check out Grouseland Tours. There’s quite a bit of information about all this on the Internet. A couple of Google searches should get you what you need. The GPS coordinates of the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache are N40.02072 W78.19852. Click on the coordinates for a Google map.

Regardless of how or when you go, we think you’ll find this a unique off the beaten path experience. We sure did.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

NPS Passport Stamps – More Things to Hunt

In 1986, the National Park Service rolled out a new program to increase interest in the parks.  Called NPS Passport, it succeeded beyond all expectations and is now in its 26th year with over 1.3 million passport books in circulation.  The program is actually administered by Eastern National, a non-profit organization chartered to provide educational materials and services to national parks.  Since their start up in 1948, they have contributed over $100 million dollars to our national parks and trusts.

Stamping the passport

Here’s a typical passport cancellation station. Stamp it on scratch paper first. Not all the stamps are out like this. Be prepared to ask for it or even explain what you’re looking for. Believe it or not, there are some people working the counter who don’t know about this. Also ask if there are any other stamps behind the counter. Sometimes those wily Rangers will stash one or two as part of “the game.”

Passport materials come in a variety of formats – small, large, children’s and more.  They cost money but it goes to the parks.   Every park has a free cancellation stamp that you put in your book like a visa.  Many of the parks have several.  Yellowstone alone has 23 scattered all over the park.  Overall, there are almost 400 parks with over 2,000 stamps spread out over their respective grounds.

The passport program is a great way to see the parks and satisfy your collecting obsession in a healthy way.  Throw in some benchmark hunting, track down some virtual geocaches and earth caches (no traditional caches allowed in the parks) and you’ll have a full schedule. You’ll certainly see and learn things the average visitor will miss.  Again, Yellowstone is a great example of this.  In addition to the 23 passport stamps, it has over 50 geocaches and at least as many benchmarks that will take you just about everywhere in the park.  We’ve been there several times and still have lots to do.

In addition to the cancellation stamps, there are collectibles. Each year the National Parks Passport Program releases a set of ten full-color collector stamps. One of the stamps is a national stamp and the other nine highlight one park from each of the nine NPS districts.  They are sold in sets that change every calendar year and cost about 10 bucks.  This article has all the stamps listed from 1986 to 2013.

This program has really grown up and has a lot of different venues.  One of the things you’ll definitely need is a master list of the cancellation stations.  These can be downloaded off the web or there are now phone apps (of course) that can keep you up to date.  The i-Phone has a dedicated NPS Passport app.  Droid has a couple of options.  I use one called Chimani. Here is a link to a PDF file with a complete list of passport cancellation stations.

A page of an NPS passport

Here’s your prize – pages full of cancellations and stamps. This is out of the smaller edition of the passport. It fills up quickly. If you get into this like we did, you’ll start small and go to the big one with the zippered case. The ink for the stamps is supposed to be in different colors depending on the region it’s in. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work out that way.

There are lots of websites and blogs with NPS Passport information. Just Google it.  For sure, you’ll want to bookmark parkstamps.org.  They’ve got master lists, master maps, NPS webcams and a whole lot more.

So get your passport, don your pith helmet and start exploring.

Your papers, please …. Boris and Natasha

Our Greatest Father/Son Conquest

After the smoke cleared from my divorce in 2002, I lived about 1/2 mile down the road from my former spouse and two kids, who were then 9 (Ben) and 13 (Karen).  Despite the fact that The Ex and I didn’t agree on a whole lot, we buried the hatchet when it came to the kids.   I spent a lot of time with them.  Every summer from 2003 to 2010, Ben and I went on a road trip somewhere for a couple of weeks.  In 2005, we discovered geocaching and we were hooked.

In June of 2006, we headed off to Yellowstone. We did it right, staying at the Old Faithful Lodge.  Afterwards we went up to Bozeman, Montana to do some back country geocaching.  It was all day trips.  We both love to go out and get dirty and nasty – as long as we can clean up in our air conditioned hotel room when we’re done.  After 20 years in the Marines, I’ll never spend another night in the field.  But anyway, on with the story…

Old Faithful

Ben at Old Faithful. We did Yellowstone right.

In one of our searches, we came up with a geocache called the Trolls Cache.  It was halfway between Bozeman and Livingston way back in the Gallatin National Forest.  On the day we went after it, it hadn’t been found in two years.

We headed for it in early afternoon.  It seemed like we drove forever on a series of dirt roads that got progressively worse and worse.  Our Magellan SporTrak Map GPS finally got us to a point that had ground zero about 300 yards to our right  – across a stream and up a steep mountain. Off we went.  We walked and walked and walked. Most of it was uphill.  The area had been lumbered out years before, so there was thick new growth and lots of ankle-breaking flotsam and jetsam on the ground.  It was hot, slow going.  Like idiots, we didn’t take any water because we figured it would be a short jaunt.  We also found out later that this is prime grizzly habitat and we had nothing for bear defense.

At some point I turned around and realized that I couldn’t see the car anymore and the sun was below the ridgeline.  Shadows were getting deep and dark fast.  We were about 50 yards away from Ground Zero when I told him we had to back off.  It wasn’t safe.  So we made our way back down the mountain thinking now we know why no one has found it in two years.  We drove out of the forest after dark.

Making the Find

I was still surveying the top of the hill on our second attempt when Ben made a beeline for this geo-beacon. The camera just happened to be at the right place at the right time to record the find.

Back at the hotel, we were bummed out.  We decided to take another shot at it.  We fired up Google Earth and got out the Delorme Montana Gazetteer.  We found what looked like an old road, maybe a lumber trail, that led up to the cache.  It would be a walk along the ridgeline instead of going up the mountain.  The next day, we were off in early morning with a map, GatorAde, lunch and bear spray.

GZ at Trolls Cache

Ben opens the prize at Ground Zero.

The rental car company would have had a cow if they had seen the roads, rocks and stream crossings we negotiated with their AWD Murano.  But we found the trail and parked about 1/2 mile from the cache.  Twenty minutes later, we were on top of the mountain and Ben made the find in short order.  It was an ammo box in great condition.

After high fives and some trash talking, we celebrated by sitting on a stump, drinking GatorAde, eating lunch and soaking up the gorgeous and rugged panorama that was present at Ground Zero.

View from GZ

The view from Ground Zero. We took it in while eating lunch. The haze in the background is smoke from a distant forest fire.

This was the toughest geocache he and I have ever gotten. We learned some hard lessons on this one.  For me, the biggest one was I’m not a Marine anymore.  I don’t have to get hurt or killed to find a cache.  Ben, who was 13 at the time, was tough and had his game face on the whole time.  I asked him how many of his buddies had found an ammo box in the Montana wilderness lately.  He got a confidence builder and a crash course in real world decision making which he never forgot. 

Six years later, the kid is grown up and off to college,  but we still laugh and shake our heads over the Trolls Cache.

Cheers …. Boris and Ben (Natasha wasn’t around yet)

The Bat Cave – Ruby, AZ

This is the long abandoned Montana Mine in Ruby, Arizona, a ghost town about 75 miles south of Tucson and five miles from the Mexican border. Starting in 1877, a succession of owners spent 40 years carving out a meager existence mining gold and hoping to strike it rich. None of them did and by the early 1920’s, Ruby and its mine were on the verge of becoming a footnote in Arizona history. Then in 1926, a mining corporation from Joplin, MO came in and converted it into a successful lead mine. During the Great Depression, Ruby was a full fledged boomtown. At its peak in the 1930’s, it covered 400 acres and had 1,200 people, 300 of whom were miners. Mining went on 24×7 with an average wage of $3 a day. When the mine closed in 1940, the town died.

The mine was dug into a ridgeline called Eggshell Hill overlooking Ruby. There was a single shaft that went down almost 1,000 feet and nine levels of subterranean tunnels, along with secondary shafts in many directions. There were so many that the entire hill became unstable to the point where several decades ago, a portion of the southeast end of it collapsed. This exposed a cross-section of the mine – just like someone sliced off the end of the hill so you could see inside.

I call it The Bat Cave. From May to September, it’s the home of an estimated 200,000 Mexican free-tailed bats. They swarm at dusk and dawn, blackening the sky above Ruby for almost five minutes. Biologists estimate they eat several tons of bugs every night.

Collapsed Mine

You can clearly see the honeycomb of shafts and levels of the Montana Mine. They keep going down into the darkness but the edge was too unstable to risk a closer look. I was already past the warning sign. With binoculars and proper light, you can see timbers, hopper cars, wooden ladders and railroad track. This is where the Mexican freetail bats swarm in and out of from May to September.

I was never much of a photographer but have become increasingly interested in it as we continue our adventures in retirement. As such, I’ve always got a camera with me primed and ready. You never know when you’ll run into the mythical “Place That Nobody Knows About and Few Have Seen.” This one definitely qualifies.

Collapsed Mine

Here’s a closeup of the top of the cave in. You get a much better view of the remnants in the shafts. With binoculars and some favorable light, you can see even more.

Almost all of my pictures are done on the move and on the fly, with little planning and setup time. You come upon some great shots but grabbing them can be challenging. Neither of these pictures really do the area justice. It’s a massive cave in and it goes down into the blackness almost 1,000 feet. There’s a single strand of rusty barbed wire fence around the top and a warning sign – both of which I ignored. Anything for the shot.

I took both pictures with a Nikon D3100 on automatic settings, an 18-270mm lens and a circular polarizer. It was about 4:00 PM in January and the light/shadows were not helpful. In the original photos, the mine area is pitch black and the sunny slopes are almost whiteouts. I edited them in Picasa to bring out as much detail as I could. By altering the light and saturating the color, they came out pretty well. If we go back, I’ll try a series of shots for an HDR photo.

Ruby is a fascinating place. If you like ghost towns, you’ll love Ruby. You can read all about it on our website.

Here’s another recent blog posting about Ruby that you might like.

To the batcave … Boris and Natasha