Our Morocco Adventure – Part 6


Friday morning, we said our “goodbyes” to Marrakesh, and continued our 3-4-hour journey back to the coast and the “White City” of Casablanca. On the outskirts of town, we pass one of the city’s soccer stadiums – part of where the country’s hopes rest for hosting the 2030 World Cup. We get into town a bit before lunch, and we stop at the Women’s Solidarity Association in Casablanca. Founded in 1985, by Aicha Ech Channa, this non-profit organization provides professional experience to single women, mothers, and victims of abuse by training them to develop the skills needed to work in restaurants, bakeries, and hammams. There we spoke to the Association’s leader, Whabea, who explains to us that the children who are born out of wedlock, and their mothers, are generally not accepted into Moroccan Society, and are often cast out by their families, leaving them no way to support themselves or their child. The Association provides skills and services for about 50-60 women that helps them support themselves and navigate the social and legal complexities of their situation. They also provide childcare, and sexual education to local girls and schools to help in reducing the problem.  After a lively question and answer session, the Association serves us a lunch of traditional cuisine before we depart and drive through downtown past the Mohamed V Square where the Theater, French Embassy and Military Court all are located. We note the modern Tram transportation system that crisscrosses the city, and take note of the Post Office, Central Bank, Royal Navy, and the famous “Rick’s Café” modeled after the famous location from the movie “Casablanca”. Finally, we reach our next destination – the towering Hassan II Mosque built partly into the Atlantic Ocean. This mosque was built in 1985 and is the largest in Morocco, 3rd largest in the world, and boasts the tallest minaret in the world. It can hold 25,000 people on its main floor with another 5000 women in the balcony, and 75,000 more in its courtyard. It took 10,000 craftsmen and 3000 laborers working for years to complete and is currently staffed by 200 daily workers who provide security and clean. The inside is supported by 300 Italian marble pillars and is lit via either its movable roof or its 57 Italian chandeliers.  The 25-ton door takes 3-minutes to electrically open and is only used by the King and President of the country. We took the 1 1/2-hour tour of the mosque to admire its marble columns, intricately designed dome, and mosaic tiles. After touring the main floor, we made our way through the washing stations downstairs before exiting to the courtyard and touring the museum.

The Hassan II Mosque built partly into the Atlantic Ocean.
The courtyard of Hassan II Mosque that holds an additional 75,000 worshipers.
Rocky & Julie inside the Hassan II Mosque.
The downstairs washroom at the Hassan II Mosque.

We departed the mosque for a brief drive to our hotel, the centrally located Radisson Blu, where we checked-in and received our room assignments for the next two nights. Next, we both had our Covid PCR tests taken which were necessary to enter back into the United States. Then, Julie and I checked out the local Tram and shopped at the local grocery store for a few snacks and a bottle of wine before having dinner and calling it night.

Saturday morning, the rest of our group left for home, but the two of us stayed on an extra day to explore more on Casablanca. After meeting our guide for breakfast, we received documentation of our negative Covid tests, bid him goodbye, and then bought tickets for the Tram. We rode it to United Nations Square where we transferred to the Tram line that would take us to the beach south of Hassan II Mosque. Once reaching the beach, we walked 1 1/2-miles further south along the boardwalk to the Moroccan Mall – the largest Mall in all of Africa. The 3-story tall mall houses all the famous shops and is anchored by a huge, towering aquarium that is home to Atlantic fish including several species of sharks and rays. Here we shopped and explored until taking a seat for an iced tea at Starbucks and beginning our journey back to the city center. When we reached our transfer point at United Nations Square, we decided to try the local McDonald’s for lunch before strolling the rest of the way back to the Radisson Blu. After straightening out a mix up in rooms and having to move up 5 floors, we enjoyed a light fruit dinner and packed for our trip home that would begin early the next morning.

Modern architecture in Casablanca.
Pasta options at a Casablanca market.
The beach at Casablanca.
Inside the Morocco Mall in Casablanca – the largest mall in Africa.
The 3-story aquarium in Morocco Mall.
Is there Rocco in Morocco?

Sunday morning, September 12th, we were up at 4am for our taxi to the airport and our Air France flights home, again with a connection in Paris de Gaulle. The flight was comfortable, but uneventful, as our paperwork was all in order, and our trip home after 17 days was welcomed.

Our Morocco Adventure – Part 5


The next morning, we leave for our trip to Marrakesh via the Tizin’Tichka Pass – the highest pass in Morocco at an elevation of 7422 ft. – (“Tizin’Tichka” in Berber means “The Pass of the Lost”).  We travel through the High Atlas Mountains for about five hours, pausing to take in viewpoints high above the valleys. The route along the Tizin’Tichka road is winding, hugging the side of the mountains following old caravan trails, but it has recently been improved and is a very scenic drive. 

Travel to Marrakesh along the historic Tizin’ Tichka Road.
Tizin’Tichka Pass – the highest pass in Morocco at an elevation of 7422 ft.

Along the way, we take a side-trip to Ait Ourir, a growing city founded on the outskirts of Marrakesh to stem the explosive growth of urban Marrakesh.  This is where our guide, Mohamed, lives with his family in a 4-story house that he saved for years to have built. He resides here with his parents, sister, brother & sister-in-law, wife, and 2 children. He even built a small sundry store on the ground floor for his father to operate. Schools, stores, and mosque are all nearby and it appears to be an excellent place to raise a family. We were greeted by the entire family and hosted with tea and an assortment of baked breads, crepes, and cakes.

In Ait Ourir to visit our guide’s family.

After a brief stay, we departed for our riad in Marrakesh, (the “red” city), where we had lunch of chicken skewers, rice, and veggies. Our riad, the Bahia Salam, was located in the heart of the old city and within walking distance of the souks and the old Jewish quarter. It was tucked back off a busy street but enjoyed the quiet of its flowered enclosures and rooftop terrace and pool. After lunch, we took an orientation walk with our local guide, Aziz, to the nearby square Djemaa El Fna, located at the intersection of the souks and the Koutoubia Mosque, the tallest structure in Marrakesh which will remain so by law. The name, “Djemaa El Fna” translates to “assembly of the dead”, and was in commemoration of the large number of public executions that occurred there in 1050 AD.  Today, it has turned into an area that is filled with street vendors, musicians, snake charmers, and pet monkeys. Food stalls line the streets with an assortment of beggars, diners, and shoppers milling about the square.  Horse-drawn carriages, motorbikes, and cars are restricted to the outskirts of the square at night and huge pedestrian traffic takes over the area.

Spices in Marrakesh’s Souks.

After a short walk, we entered a small custom spice shop, Medina Herbal, where different herbs and spices are used for creams and teas. Here we bought natural, organic saffron, the stigma threads taken from the flower of the Crocus Sativus plant. It is the world’s most costly spice by weight but is often sought for its flavoring and coloring properties. Then, after returning to the riad, Julie and I decide to explore the Jewish area located just a short distance away. Here we shop for spices and clothes and look for gifts that we can return home with. That night dinner was on our own, and we found some local fare to sample while wandering the maze of alleyways.

Custom spices at Medina Herbal.
Shopping in the Square of Djemaa El Fna.

The second morning we had breakfast on the roof terrace before meeting again with Aziz for a foot tour of old city. Today was the country’s Election Day where Parliament members are selected from among 36 Political Parties. We did see a few voting lines, but no one we spoke to all day had actually voted. The King has final say on both the elected members, and on any “laws” or recommendations that Parliament might make. First, we walked to the nearby opulent Bahia Palace. This 19th-century palace houses 150 council rooms with large fireplaces and intricately painted cedar work lining the floor and walls. The open-air Court of Honor is lined with tiles and fountains. Then we walked 10-15 minutes through the souks to Le Jardin Secret, a beautifully manicured 400-year-old palatial estate featuring immaculately manicured gardens.

Ornate architecture of the Bahia Palace.
In the Gardens of Le Jardin Secret.

Then we traveled a complicated route to Palais Galerie Saadien, where custom Moroccan wool rugs are displayed, shopped for, and ordered. We liked the options offered and arranged to have someone meet us later at the riad to guide us back to the shop to explore an order. After that, we returned to Djemaa El Fna where we took seats in a local restaurant for a lunch of skewered grilled beef, chicken, and lamb. Then we returned to the riad for a short rest before our guide back to Palais Saadien arrived.  After negotiating another complicated maze of small alleys, we returned to the Galerie where we negotiated and ordered 4 handmade Moroccan wool rugs, (including a round one), to be made by a village craftswoman with the specific colors and design we selected. It would take 4-months to create these, and another month to ship them to us in the United States. After completing the transaction, we were guided back to Djemaa El Fna from which we could find our way back to the riad, where we enjoyed a leisurely swim in the roof-top pool.

Craftsman working a foot-lathe.
In Marrakesh’s souks to order rugs from Palais Saadien.

After cooling off, our travel group gathered downstairs for an adventurous tour of the city via an hour-long horse-drawn Carriage ride, in two “calleches”. The ride took us through the “old city”, past palaces and mosques and high-end shopping districts, before returning us to our riad. That night, we wandered through the medina by ourselves and eventually into the bustling Djemaa El Fna where we enjoyed a light dinner and ice cream for dessert. Thant night we sat beside the pool on the roof and enjoyed a glass of our local wine and the city bustled below.

Marrakesh’s horse drawn carriages.
Rocky & Julie on carriage ride in Marrakesh.

Thursday morning would begin our last day in Marrakesh, and we started it by arising at 4:30am and catching a hired limousine for the 45-minute drive out of town to the far edge of Marrakesh. Here, we exited in the dark to a large tent where we enjoyed tea while receiving a safety briefing and instructions for our upcoming sunrise hot-air balloon ride. After watching the balloons fill and arise, we boarded and began our ascent into the pre-dawn light sky. The balloon basket held 16 guests – quartered off into 8 compartments – plus the pilot. Our pilot was an Egyptian man who had flown tourists on balloons in Egypt, Turkey, Kenya, and South Africa, and who was so adept at the controls that we hardly noticed any ascents or descents, or even the landing. While floating along between 4000 and 6000 feet high, we watched the sun rise over Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains, while watching 3 other balloons jockey for viewpoints beneath us. After landing, we returned to the tent where we were given certificates and enjoyed a breakfast of omelets, pancakes, cheese, and fruit, while sipping on tea and banana smoothies.

At hot air balloon embarkation tent predawn.
Our hot air balloon for Marrakesh flyover.
Fellow balloon travelers over Marrakesh.

We then returned to the riad and went shopping in the souks looking for souvenirs and a painting that would fit a particular frame in our Florida bedroom. Luckily, we found an artist who had the right shapes and colors of a desert scene that we loved and negotiated for its purchase. While out, we found some lunch before returning to the riad for another relaxing swim in the pool. Then, in the afternoon, we gathered for a short ride to meet with Chaimae Benyamna, a female medical student whose scientist parents supported her pursuit of such an untraditional western lifestyle. We discussed challenges she has faced and that she continues to face in her aspiration of becoming a woman gynecologist in a country where the profession is dominated by men. After our discussion, we traveled to “The Red House”, a former lavish French home that has been converted into a very classy boutique hotel and restaurant where we enjoyed our trip’s “Farewell Dinner”. Here we had cocktails and petit fours, followed by squab with raisins and spice orange cake for dessert. We ended the evening with toasts and “Thank You’s” before making the trip back to our riad for our last night in Marrakesh.

Squab with Raisins Tagine.

Our Morocco Adventure – Part 4

The Atlas Mountains & Ourrzazate

Sunday morning had us saying goodbye to our Sahara camp staff and taking our 4-wheel-drive vehicles back to the Macro Fossils Kasbah outside of Erfoud where we transferred back to our transport bus for the trip to Ourrzazate. Our first stop along the way was for a visit and explanation of the Khettaras. A Khettaras is an underground tunnel and well network that was constructed to bring water from its source to be distributed and used for families and irrigation in the Sahara. On each side of the High Atlas in Morocco, various societies have built thousands of these khettaras, each of them dug and maintained by hand.

Diagram of a Kettara’s design.
Photo of a Kettera with Water Bucket.

After descending and traveling along one of these underground tunnels, we continued our journey to the town of Tinejdad. Here we entered the Ksar of El Khorbat and visited a Berber Museum assembled within by a local Jewish activist. The Ksar, (a fortified village), is a walled and protected assemblage of homes and businesses typically built to keep desert raiders out. After visiting the museum, we had lunch at the Touroug Café, before continuing our journey. Our drive took us through the Todra Valley and past many proud Berber towns. The valley boasts green crops and “green doors” painted at the request of the government. The Berber Flag (green, blue, and yellow) flies prominently, and construction and development are apparent. The area is known not only for its silver mines, but also as the “Valley of Roses”. We pass through Kelaa M’gouna, a town brimming with rose gardens and the home to Morocco’s Annual “Rose Festival” in May of each year. We then make a short stop and travel through the town of Skoura which had long been a favorite place for second homes for French, Spanish and Canadian investors, but has been suffering for the past few years with an extensive drought. Next, we pass the Noor Power Plant – the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant project at 160MW and which cost ~$9 billion. China had designed and constructed it for Morocco, and still operates it, and it is only the first part of a planned 500MW facility. This area averages 300 days of sun per year totaling 2635 kWh/m2/year making it an ideal location for such a facility. Morocco aspires to reach 30% of its energy from solar and wind by 2030. Finally, we reach the city of Ourrzazate, and we check into the Berber Palace hotel. Ourrzazate is the “Moroccan Hollywood” and is home to several Movie Production Houses and Sets. The hotel was outfitted with all sorts of former movie paraphernalia and has hosted many movie stars during their filming. That night, we enjoy dinner and relax in our first air conditioning in over 3-days.

Inside of the Ksar of El Khorbat.
The Village of Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage sit.e

Our next day in Ourrzazate was the “Day in the Life” where we visit a local family and learn a bit more about their typical daily lives. We started the day by passing the Atlas and Cal Movie Studios on our way to meet our local guide in the village of Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There, our local guide, Ibrahim, gave us a brief history about the village before we stopped to see a roadside artist demonstrating a local drawing technique. He used saffron, green tea, and indigo to “invisibly” draw on paper, and then heats it to make the colorful images appear. Ibrahim grew up in the area and had seen the old town supplanted by a new village. He often worked in support of the Movie Productions, and during the filming of Season 4 of “Game of Thrones”, he had actually had a role on film as an extra. We then traveled into the village of Asfalou to visit a typical family. Mohamed and Hashema welcomed us into their home where we met their 5 children ranging from 3- to 15-years old. They have a small farm of olive trees and alfalfa which they use to raise small livestock, and to make bricks. Julie helped ~35-year-old Hashema make bread in a charcoal oven before we walk back into the farm and were followed by the children and their neighborhood friends. There, we took seats around a small campfire and enjoyed tea and the fresh-made bread. The children ask to sing for us, and they sing their national anthem. Then, ~50-year-old Mohamed shows us how he makes ~120 bricks every day out of straw, dung, and mud, which he sells for ~10 cents each. Rocky makes his best attempt to make a single brick, but it is difficult work that enjoys a chuckle from the audience. Then, we adjourn to “reception room”, a large area with banquette seating around the walls and interact with the children while Hashema finalized a delicious lunch of couscous & beef tagine.

Julie making bread with Hashema.
Mohamed with children.
Mohamed making bricks for income.

After we said our “goodbyes”, we traveled a short distance to the Imik Smik Women’s Association for Rural Development – a women cooperative partly supported by the Grand Circle Foundation. They currently support ~43 women to become entrepreneurial in the areas of weaving, sewing, and cooking, and provide an outlet for the marketing of the products they create. We enjoyed a spirited conversation led by the Association’s Leader, Fatima, and played “dress-up” with some of their local attire, before marveling at their ability to freestyle henna on our hands.

The women of Imik Smik Women’s Association for Rural Development.
Julie in Berber wedding dress.

Then, we returned to our Berber Palace to freshen-up before heading downtown to Dimitri’s Restaurant for a spectacular duck dinner. After dinner, we strolled through the city’s center market where people bought and sold their wares while children played and ate ice cream.  Finally, we made it back to our hotel and settled in for the night.

Evening market in Ourrzazate.

Our Morocco Adventure – Part 3

Erfoud & The Sahara Desert

Thursday morning, after breakfast, we boarded our bus for the long trip south, across the Atlas Mountains, to the town of Erfoud. Along the way, we continued to learn about the country and how it negotiated its independence from France in 1944, but with a number of conditions, including giving France the first option for the country’s contracts and access to its minerals for the next century! As we leave Fes, we begin to see the climate becoming drier, and we spot our first camel herds and see signs for purchase of camel milk. As we climb the Middle Atlas Mountains and pass the town of Seffrou, there are orchards of apples and cherries, and an amazing number of fruits and vegetable being grown, along with the ever-present olive trees. We soon cross over into the National Forest, which is brimming with juniper, pine, oak, and cedar trees. The Park had historically been home to elephants, lions, and gazelles, but today only boasts boar, deer, fox and the seldom seen Barbary apes (monkeys).

The Barbary Apes of the Atlas Mountains
Two Barbary Apes of Morocco

This part of Morocco also serves as its snow-skiing capital with towns of A-frames and chalets. We stop at the center of this activity in the town of Ifrane, where we shop briefly and have a mid-morning coffee. From here, our trip south will take us over a 6000ft-high pass and deeper into the Berber communities. Along the way, we spot a family of traditional nomadic Berber herders and stop to ask them if we can visit briefly. The mother answered our translated questions and gave us a tour of her home – a wood/plastic and dirt hut with separate food preparation buildings. The father was away tending the herd, but mother, Amine, and her 3 children 11, 7, and 2 years of age, and mother-in-law, were very interested in us. We learned of their difficult lives as nomads, and of the importance they ascribed to getting their kids to school. The youngest boy was still dressed from his recent circumcision ceremony, and they were proud to show us their lifetime collection of china, rugs, and blankets.

The Nomadic Home of Berber Nomads

After that we continued to the town of Midelt, the apple capital of the country, to have lunch. Our lunch was farm-raised trout from the Middle Atlas Mountain streams in a restaurant called Kasbah Taddart.

Lunch at Kasbah Taddart

After lunch, we continued our journey over the Atlas Mountains, passing a series of military training bases and a growing number of wind farms. In 2019, Morocco responded to the growing Algerian threat by calling up men aged 17-25 for military service, and optionally taking women, as well.  However, when the women recruits exceeded the men, the 300,000-person goal was easily met. We drove along the Ziz River and through the Ziz valley, widely known for extensive date palm tree groves and saw the devastating effects of the recent fire that had swept the area. This area is particularly known for its Majhoul dates, considered to be the sweetest and best dates of all the varieties. However, the fire completely wiped a significant number of local growers.

The Ziz Valley on Morocco

We continued into the town of Erfoud to walk through the town and to stay the night after our long journey. Exploring the town, we went through the date markets and tasted different types of dates.  After that, we checked into our hotel, the Erg Chergui, which was a huge, 200-room complex with a beautiful, central, outdoor swimming pool, and of which we were the only guests there. The buildings were made conforming to the traditional type of building in the south of Morocco, and modeled after a Kasbah – e.g., a fortified house. As for the name “Erg”, it means the “sand dunes” in Berber, and is very appropriate since Erfoud is situated as the “entrance” to the Sahara Desert. That night we enjoyed salads with a kefta tagine and jawhara dessert before watching the qualifying match between Morocco & Sudan soccer teams on television.

Friday morning, we boarded our bus and traveled a very short distance to the Macro Fossils Kasbah, a local factory of fossils located on the outskirts of Erfoud, where we learned about the Moroccan Fossils and black marble that are mined from the surrounding area

Polloshed Fossils Mined near Erfoud Morocco

Here, we also switched transportation from our bus to two 4-wheel drive SUVs and continued our journey towards the dessert until we came to the small town of Rissani. Here we did a walk around the local market of the area before visiting with Ahmed who runs a shop that sells scarfs and garments for the Sahara. We took the opportunity to purchase traditional desert djellabas (gel-al-bahs – tunic-style outfits that reach the ground) and long Tuareg scarfs that can be hand tied onto our heads in the tradition of Berber Turbans.

Rock & Julie in djellabas & turbins

Then we went through the sand dunes to reach our tented camp where we settled in and had a lunch of barbecued ground beef. Our tents were permanent tent-structures with separate, internal bathroom and shower “pods”, electricity, and a single fan. Rocky took the occasion to wear his new desert attire and explore the dunes near the camp, where he came across a small, irrigated date farm, and a camel herder with his 4 grazing camels.

The Edge of the Sahara near Risanni
Our Tented Camp – Sahara home for 2 nights
The Inside of of Sahara Tent

After a short rest, we traveled to a nearby farm where we met with the owner’s son. He took us around the farm explaining to us how they hand-dug their water wells and showed us their irrigation system that connects a series of pipes and channels to deliver water to their date palm trees. He also explained to us how they pollinate the palm trees by hand to insure the most robust harvests.

Local Date Farm on edge of Sahara

Upon returning to the tented camp, we assembled at the Dining Tent for a demonstration in preparation and cooking of our traditional Friday couscous tagine dinner. We then traveled out onto the dunes and climbed up onto them to gain vantage points to watch the sun set in the West. After a golden sunset and our couscous tagine dinner, we enjoyed the peacefulness of the desert in camp and took pictures of the Milky Way Galaxy displayed clearly in a cloudless dark sky.

The Sahara Sand Dunes at Golden Hour

Saturday was a day to explore the Sahara sand dunes. We got up early to drink our coffee and watch the sun rise over the Eastern dune-line, and then we had breakfast. After breakfast, we climbed into our 4-wheel-drive vehicles and made the brief drive to the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi. Here we climbed upon our camels and began a thrilling journey over the endless dunes.  The camels were extremely well behaved, and their ability to balance and remain stable while descending an avalanching sand dune was truly remarkable. Their footpads actually expand out while being placed upon the sand’s surface, giving them a large, stable platform while carrying their load.

On Sahara Safari via Camels

After our 90-minute camel-ride, we got back into our vehicles and drove off into the desert to a remote Berber Nomad’s home. Along the way, we stopped to visit a local Berber cemetery and learn about the Moroccan way of burying people – quickly, unadorned, and with their heads towards Mecca. The nomad, Amar, and his family, lived in a small adobe home with a large tent-tarp propped up for daily life and to receive visitors. He had lived there for 8-years with his son, daughter-in-law, her sister, and his 2-grandchildren, (plus another on-the-way). They entertained us under the tent, (his son was away tending the goat herd), on carpets and rugs, with tea and cookies, while we asked questions about their daily lives.  The oldest grandson was 10 years old and was eligible for free schooling, but the school was so far removed from them, he would have to live at the school during the week to attend. This arrangement was briefly tried but was too disruptive to continue.  Therefore, the family was considering moving closer to town to give him a chance at a better life.  This value placed upon education was universal across the country, and it is driving a rapid urbanization of Morocco, as families flock to cities where education and opportunity are available.

Berber Nomad Amar Serving Tea under his Tent

After we thanked our nomadic hosts, we headed to the town of Khamlia where we visited with the Gnawa musicians who teach and perform Berber music on traditional instruments. Much of this music dates to the 6th-century from Berber nomads in the regions of Mali, Mauritania and Guinea.

The Gnawa Muscisians Perform Berber Music

After the performance, we returned to our tented camp for a lunch of turkey skewers.  After lunch, we relaxed and discussed more about the Islamic Religion, (“Islam” translates to “peace”), and its differences and impacts across the Northern Africa, Middle Eastern, and southern Asia regions. We learned that their teachings of the Koran begin at ~14-years-old, and we learned briefly of the 5-tenants of Islam – Bearing witness to one God, Prayer, Alms to the poor, Fasting at Ramadan, and Pilgrimage to Mecca. We also learned a bit about the differences between Sunni and Shiite sects. That afternoon, the temperature reached 108-degrees Fahrenheit, and we decided to return to a small resort in a nearby town to take advantage of their swimming pool and hospitality. The relaxing afternoon was just what we needed before heading back to our camp for dinner. That night, we dined on a specialty of the Sahara called El Madfouna or the “Berber Pizza”. El Madfouna is stuffed bread with spice and ground beef inside and it was delicious. After dinner, we gathered with the camp’s staff around a campfire playing the drums, dancing, and enjoying the pleasant evening air.

Drumming around the Campfire in Sahara Camp

Our Morocco Adventure -Part 2


Monday morning, after breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and boarded our bus for the 5-hour trip to the city of Fes (Fez in English). We leave the coast, pass the Palace of Dar es Salaam along with sweeping fields, rolling countryside, and tree-covered slopes, mostly covered with rows of olive trees. We use the time to discuss Morocco’s King Mohamed VI, a relatively young man at 58-years-old, who is not in the best of health. He was educated and holds a PhD in Law from Nice, France, and ascended to the throne upon his father’s, King Hassan II, death in 1999. He holds enormous wealth as the richest king in Africa and the 5th richest king in the world, but in 2004 he led very progressive reforms in the areas of universal health, education, and women’s rights. 

After an hour-and-a-half, we stopped for refreshments at a vegetable market in a city called El Khemisset. Here, we walked through the fresh vegetable market and learned about the Moroccans tradition of having couscous on Fridays. Fruits and vegetables exported to Europe, along with international tourism, provide the country’s main source of income. As we leave El Khemisset, the police have a checkpoint and stop us to ensure we are wearing or face masks, and to check the vehicle’s recorder to make sure that our driver is taking his required breaks, (15-minutes every 2-hours), and that we have not exceeded the speed limit. Every vehicle in Morocco is fitted with a paper-disc chart recorder that is recording the vehicle’s speed continuously. Driver’s must provide these upon request and can be ticketed, or worse, if found to be in violation of traffic laws.

The vehicle’s chart recorder for Authority Inspection.

After another hour’s travel, we enter Fes, a city of over 2-million people and the intellectual, spiritual, and handicraft capital of the country. 60% of Moroccan’s now live in a Moroccan city, and the rural farms and countryside are being rapidly gobbled-up by large, industrial companies. Fes dates to the 9th Century and was built around the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque founded by an Arab woman, Fatima Al-Fihriyy. The Al-Qarawiyyin mosque subsequently developed a teaching institution, which became the University of al-Qarawiyyin in 1963.

After entering the town’s medina, we exit our bus to walk down a maze of small passageways to our accommodations for the next 3 nights – the Riad Palais Marjana. A “riad” is actually the “green-space” within the center of a corresponding residence, and this beautiful Riad, decorated with intricate mosaic tile and detailed plaster carving, has been in the same family for 11 generations and offers only 20 rooms. After checking-in to our modest 2nd-floor room, we met everyone in the riad for lunch – a series of cold salads of beans, carrots, cucumbers, beets, lettuce, and potatoes with rice, with a main course of Kefta Mkaouara – a meatball tagine dish that was delicious – followed by a ktifa – a traditional Moroccan dessert sometimes called “milk bastille”.

The Riad Palais Marjana at which we stayed three nights (note the swimming pool on the main floor) – stunning architecture.

After lunch, we met our local guide – another Mohamed – and went to the “Bori Suud” – the Southern Tower, whose design was inspired by that of Portuguese castles. The fortification dates back to the era of the Saadi state, where Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansur ordered its construction in 1582 for defensive military purposes. Later, during French rule, it was used as a prison, and in 1963 it was converted into a weapons museum. It is located south of Fez Al-Bali and was built on a rocky elevation that overlooks the city, called the “Tar Stone”. Facing it on the other side of the city is the corresponding defensive Northern Tower, both offering spectacular panoramic views of the city of Fes! Mohamed then took us to visit a local ceramic manufacturing co-op, and then for a walk along the city’s main street, Hassan II Boulevard. In the center of the boulevard is a popular linear park where stand the symbol and mascot of the country – the Atlas Lion.  Today, the Atlas Lion is extinct in the wild, but is kept protected in the country’s zoos. We then returned to our riad for a brief rest, before the two of us ventured out on our own to explore the local area, visit the famous “Blue Gate”, shop, and eat Italian gelato.

The next morning, after breakfast, we again met up with our local guide, Mohamed, and set off to visit the Royal Palace of Fez, (Dar al-Makhzen), and its seven copper doors.

The Royal Palace of Fes’, (Dar al-Makhzen), and its seven copper doors.

Then we walked through the Jewish quarter of the medina, which is called Mellah, meaning “salt” in Arabic, due to the saline water source and salt warehouse in the area. From there, we began our exploration of the medina’s souks (markets), beginning at the Bad Erracif entrance. We walked through the vegetable, butcher, and fish markets, we dodge donkey carts and motorbikes, making our way along the ~7000 narrow passages, before arriving at the dyers’ market, and then the copper-makers market, (called Esaffarine).

The Bad Erracif Entrance to Fes’ Souks.
The Vegetable & Olive Markets of Fes’ Souks.

At the copper-makers market, we found a small restaurant where we climbed to the second floor for tea and cookies. Then we continued our walk until we came to Nejjarine’s, our restaurant for lunch – a lemon chicken tagine. The restaurant was named for the carpentry activities that are done in that part of the medina. After lunch, we continued our tour by visiting a Koranic school, (Al Atterine Madrassa), that dates back to the 14th century. 

The Koranic school, Al Atterine Madrassa, built in the 14th century.

We also visited the famous Terrase de Tannerie tannery of Fes that day, where we climbed to an overlook of the tanning and dye pots that have been in use for centuries. After learning the differences between cow, sheep, and goat hides, we walked to the Mosque and oldest University in the world that was built by Fatima Al Fihria in 859AD. The University is called “Al Quaraouiyine” and the “hand of Fatima” symbol is revered and reproduced on many entrances all around the country. We then finished our tour by visiting the weavers in the Caravan Serai which in Arabic is called a Fondouk. Fondouk’s were built as rest stops for travelers on journeys and can be found along most well-known ancient trade routes. They provided travelers, traders and missionaries with shelter and supplies and served as platforms for communication and exchange between diverse passersby. They were traditionally built in a square or rectangular shape, around an inner courtyard, and often feature a fountain to shelter guests from the heat.

The Terrase de Tannerie tannery of Fes.
The Oued Bou Khrareb flowing through the middle of Fes.

After our tour, we returned to our riad to prepare to meet our home-hosting family for dinner. 

Our host at Riad Palais Marjana serving tea.

Our hosting began when the family’s 21-year-old daughter, Kawtar, came and walked us a short distance to their home – a spacious 2nd-floor flat where she, her parents and her 16-year-old sister lived. Their 26-year-old brother had already received his degree in France and was working there as an electrical engineer. Dad was a banker who spoke little English, but Kawtar translated easily to French for him. The family’s mother, Fatima, also held a degree, but had given up her career to raise her family.  Little sister, Hiba, is preparing for exams to progress her on a road to a future medical degree. Kawtar was preparing to leave home in a matter of days to follow her brother and travel to France to study for a master’s degree in Finance. Like any family who wants a better life for their children, the parent’s see education as the path to the next generation’s happiness and success. We talked about careers (ours and theirs), the pandemic, travel, and children.  We even talked a little about Moroccan politics since their elections were only a day away.  We all had dinner of harira soup with bread and figs, and a delicious lamb tagine with caramelized prunes. At the end of the night, after heartfelt thanks and goodbyes, we had to hurry back to our riad to beat the 9:00pm curfew.

Wednesday morning the travel group split, and while the other 3 traveled to visit nearby Roman ruins, we took the option to take a cooking class learning to make our own tagine. A young woman, Amine, met us at our riad and took us on an hour-long shopping walk to the local souk located near to the famous “Blue Gate”. Making our way through the bustling market, we purchased eggplants, onions, green peppers, tomatoes, carrots, olives, and everything we would need to cook lunch.

The Blue Gate of Fes.

From there, we returned to nearby Riad Salam where a cooking cart was set up for us next to the pool in the center of the riad. We met our Moroccan instructor, the Riad’s chef, and she took us through the prepping and cooking for making a Lemon Chicken tagine. We used the eggplant to make Zaalaouk, an eggplant & tomato salad, and the peppers to make Taktouka, another tasty salad, and then, while finishing the cooking, we enjoyed mint tea and anise cookies.  After the lunch was completed, we dined at an elegant setting, and finished with a dessert of Jawhara – fried filo pastry stacked with panna cotta.

Shopping in the Souks of Fes.
The Riad Salem where we cooked and prepared lunch.
Chefs Rocky & Julie preparing lunch.

We leisurely returned to our riad by 3:00pm where we met up with our returning tour-mates. From there, we assembled for a short walk to International Institute for Languages and Culture where we met with Women’s Rights Author, Professor Fatima Sadiqui. We engaged in a discussion on her views of the impact of conservative Moroccan culture on women’s rights and discussed changes which are driving the country forward. After our lively conversation, we headed back to our riad for a dinner of chicken pasilla – a sweet & savory chicken filling that is wrapped in layers of very thin dough.

Our Morocco Adventure

Part 1: Rabat & Sale’

August-September 2021

It was Friday when we left our home in Alexandria, Virginia to finally begin our adventure to the exotic land of Morocco. We had originally scheduled this trip in 2019 for travel in 2020, but the Covid-19 Pandemic had deferred the trip until now. We were skeptical up to the last minute that the trip would even “go” as the U.S. Department of State raised the Security Advisory for Morocco to Level 4 just a few days before our departure, and then one person of our travel group was a late cancel, leaving our group size at only 5 individuals. We had spoken to our Moroccan Trip Leader, Mohamed Ait Alla, and he had assured us that all was ready, and so we boarded the D.C. Metro train, transferred to the Silver Line Express, and arrived at Dulles Airport for check-in with Air France. The overnight flight to Paris was smooth and uneventful, and the transfer to an Air France flight to Casablanca at Charles de Gaulle was quick with a minimum or security and vaccination checks. We arrived in Casablanca and met the rest of our group – a couple from Kansas City, (Clark and Jacque), and Clark’s sister from Wisconsin, (Debi). The five of us were greeted by Samir, and we boarded a small bus for the 2-hour ride north up the coast from Casablanca to the city of Rabat, Morocco’s capital since 1913. Here, we checked into Hotel Le Dawliz located on the opposite bank of the Bouregreg River in Rabat’s sister-city, Sale’. There we were met by the Vice-President of the Travel Company from London, and the Moroccan Representatives, as well as Mohamed, to welcome us as one of the first tourists from America since the pandemic began. Our room overlooked the hotel pool and the river, with views of the Hassan Tower, the Royal Mausoleum, and the Grand Theatre located on the opposite bank. The Grand Theatre and Opera House was designed by Zaha Hadid to be in the shape of a cobra with its large flat head readily apparent from above. It is the largest theatre in all of Africa. After freshening-up, we all met for a fish dinner and learned a bit about each other, before retiring to get ready to the next day.

Map of our Moroccan trip.
The Hotel Le Dawliz in Sale’
The Grand Theatre and Opera House in Rabat.
View across the Bouregreg River of The Hassan Tower.

On Sunday, we met for breakfast at 7:30am and then received our trip briefing from Mohamed. After the briefing, we boarded our bus for a quick tour of Rabat. First, we visited Dar al-Makhzen – the Royal Palace in Rabat which is the King’s principal residence. The King, Mohammed VI, however, prefers the smaller and relatively secluded Palace of Dar es Salaam, further out of center of the city, and maintains the Dâr-al-Makhzen only as his official and administrative residence Since he was not there, we were able to walk across the parade grounds, view the extensive gardens, and see the collection of uniformed guards representing each branch of service. The King of Morocco has 12 palaces around the country, all maintained continuously ready for his potential visit.  After that we stopped by Hassan Tower & the Mausoleum for Mohamed V. Then, we drove to Kasbah El Oudayas, built in the 12th-century, which was the capital of the greatly feared Barbary Pirates.

Mohamed VI Tower – to be Tallest Building in Africa
Guard at entrance to Dar al-Makhzen – the Royal Palace in Rabat.
The Historic Hassan Tower in Rabat.
The Royal Mausoleum in Rabat.
The North Beach where the Bouregreg River meets the Atlantic.

A Kasbah is a citadel of a North African city, typically a walled section in the older or native quarter of the city. Kasbah El Oudayas is located at the Atlantic coast where the Bouregreg River meets the ocean. From there, the views of the beaches were fantastic. Inside the Kasbah, residents live in their historic family dwellings with shops and artisans throughout.  We stopped and sampled the local bread as it came out of the brick oven that was on its way to the local market. From there, we went to Pietri Square, to a shop run by refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa and met with Celia Omondiale, a Nigerian victim of human trafficking, left homeless, penniless, pregnant, and unable to speak the language in this foreign country with the broken promise of a better life in France. In Morocco, without proper documentation, she cannot receive any government assistance, and her child cannot attend public school.  They are excluded from Moroccan society and rely on the assistance and generosity of others to survive. Because of its close proximity to Europe, Morocco is a popular place for refugees and immigrants who try to make their way across the Straits of Gibraltar. The influx of sub-Saharan refugees into Morocco, and the stress it is placing on the nation’s already-strained social services is a huge national problem for Morocco. Morocco is a nation of about only 36 million people, but an estimated over 700,000 immigrants currently live in the country.  As the number of undocumented immigrants grows, so does the problem of how to accommodate them in a nation already struggling with poverty and unemployment. In 2020, Morocco’s jobless rate rose to 12.3%—the highest it’s been since 2003—leaving immigrants and citizens alike to compete for limited resources and ratcheting up the tension between the two segments of the population. 

Upon returning to the hotel, we decided to take a walk and explore the medina of Sale’ – a locale that featured traditional shops and families living their everyday lives. From there, we wandered past the local mass-vaccination center to the Bouregreg Marina, where locals were enjoying kayaking and a wide range of water sports. Through financing and by order of the King, Morocco’s Covid vaccination rate exceeded 92% at this time, (and reached over 99% by September 18th)!  Upon returning to our hotel, we enjoyed the pool and prepped for dinner. That night, our “Welcome” dinner was in a restaurant called Dinarjat, located in Rabat’s medina – the traditional, old, non-European part of any North African town. Dinner was a feast starting with seven different salads and meat-filled pastries, followed by rice-stuffed zucchini, green peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes, with a dessert of deep-fried filo-dough, layered with almonds and whipped cream.

Marina Bouregreg
Spices at the Souk.

2021 Western Ohio Bicycle Adventure

June 2021

The year 2020 would have been the 32nd annual riding of The Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure – (GOBA) – a week-long cycling and camping adventure across a varying part of Ohio that our brother-in-law had fully participated in over its entire history, and which we had joined him and his wife for the past decade.  However, the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020-2021 cancelled the 2020 running, and in 2021, a smaller, more conservative running, relabeled WOBA, was offered as a temporary replacement.

This year’s rides would start in the western Ohio town of Sydney on Sunday (Father’s Day) with a 53-mile ride in 93-degree heat. The ride was organized as a looping figure-8 and the heat and hills were wearing on the 350 participants. At the end of the ride, back in Sydney, we showered at the Fairgrounds and drove to the town of Wapakoneta – home to The Neil Armstrong Museum, where we set up our tents for a well-deserved night’s rest.

Monday was a day of strong winds and another 55-miles laid out over a large loop, and Tuesday we cycled 51-miles along country roads surrounded by corn and soybeans. After our rides each day, we would explore local businesses, such as The Bicycle Museum of America in New Bremen and Five Vines Winery outside of Wapakoneta. After Tuesday’s ride, we drove to the town of Versailles – home to the annual “Chicken Festival” – where we set up our tents at Heritage Park.

Wednesday, we decided to cut our ride short and stopped for a proper sit-down breakfast at Sideliners after a short 22-miles.  We then used the day to again pack up and move to the town of Troy where we camped near the banks of the Great Miami River and had time to explore their historic downtown, including the local library, bakery, and the Moeller Brewery. Thursday, we rode 45-miles through Piqua and past historic old remnants of the Ohio Canal system. Friday was another 43-miles, partly along River Bike paths.  However, upon returning to camp, an earlier drizzle convinced us to pack up our tents and head to my brother-in-law’s house located only 30-miles away.

Downtown Troy

Saturday, we arose early and biked into the town of Tipp City where we joined the final leg of the adventure and stopped for breakfast at a favorite spot.  After we rode back home, we had put in another 19-miles along the beautiful riverside path along the Great Miami River.

With another weeklong bicycle adventure  “in the books” and nearly 300 miles behind us, we took the occasion to celebrate with a toast and a cold glass of beer.

South Dakota – Part 3

On Wednesday morning, we checked out of our hotel in Custer and began the drive to Wyoming to visit Devil’s Tower, (Yes – the Devil’s Tower of “Close Encounters” fame). Along the way we pass Jewel Cave National Monument and small herds of deer and alpaca. As we leave the Black Hills and head into Wyoming, the landscape becomes dotted with old “nodding donkey” oil wells and an isolation of few cars and fewer people.  We arrive at Devil’s Tower National Monument (again, no one at the entrance station), leave our car at the lot located at its base, and begin a 1.3-mile hike that circumnavigates it. The views looking up at the volcanic columnar joints of rock, and then viewing the opposing panoramas make the hike a must-do experience. After our hike, we stop and shop at the local Trading Post and begin our trip back to South Dakota along I-90 East to the town of Spearfish and past the documented Vore Buffalo Jump where buffalo were supposed to have been driven over the cliff to harvest them. We take the recommended drive down Spearfish Valley Scenic Byway stopping to view Bridal Veil Falls and watch the local fly fishermen before continuing our journey into Savoy where we picnicked and hiked 1.1-miles into the river valley to Spearfish Falls.

Then, it was onto the famous “Wild West” town of Deadwood.  Deadwood is well known for its old Western history, and for the fact that “Wild Bill” Hickok was shot dead at a poker game there in 1876. His poker hand, which he supposedly held at the time of his death, has become known as the dead man’s hand: two pairs; black aces and eights. The town was made even more popular after the HBO series, “Deadwood” was aired. In Deadwood, we visited the “Visitor’s Center”, and then toured the Mount Moriah Cemetery where both Hickok and his true love, Martha “Calamity” Jane are buried.  Around their gravestones are an assortment of mementos left by admirers, including bullets, coins, flowers, and painted stones. Next, we checked into our hotel at “The Mineral Palace”, a conglomeration of old buildings located on Main Street and home to one of the many casinos populating the way.  A stroll down Main Street brought us past the old Bullock Hotel, the Gem Saloon, and to Saloon #10 where Hickok was killed. We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping for souvenirs and tasting spirits from the Deadwood Distillery before heading to a fantastic steak dinner at the Gem Restaurant in the Mineral Palace.

Thursday morning, we were up early and headed to the town of Sturgis – home to the world’s largest summer motorcycle rally, and then beyond to Bear Butte State Park.  Bear Butte is a hallowed Native American site, and we took the occasion to hike 1100 feet, (4462 feet elevation) up a 2-mile trail for the awesome 360-degree view.  After hiking back down and visiting with a local chief at the historical center, we drove onto Rapid City where the downtown is populated with life-sized statues of every president of the United States, located on every street corner.  After sightseeing the town, we were back in the car and into the Badlands where we briefly reentered the Park to see bison, bighorn sheep and mountain goats as the sun set on the horizon.  That night, we again stayed in the town of Wall and re-visited Wall Drug for last-minute shopping before enjoying dinner at the Badland’s Saloon.

Friday morning, we made one last drive through Badland’s National Park as the sun came up over the horizon.  The early journey rewarded us with sightings of Pronghorns, Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer, Mountain Goats and even a few Bunny Rabbits!  We returned to the Wall hotel for breakfast before checking out and heading east on I-90 back towards Sioux Falls.  Along the way, we made a stop at the Minuteman Delta-01 Missile site, but it was closed.

Further along we stopped in the town of Mitchell, home of the famous Corn Palace.  The Corn Palace hosts ½ million visitors per year, is of a Moorish design with minarets, and is completely covered and decorated with murals made from corn cobs, husks, and stalks of 12 different colors that are changed out annually. The Corn Palace was originally built in 1892, rebuilt in 1905, and remodeled in 1921 and serves as the Region’s premier location for basketball tournaments, graduations, etc. Then, it was onto Sioux City where we went downtown to visit Hotel Phillip – converted from the historical Sioux Falls National Bank built in 1918, with the impressive vault, (complete with its 16-ton doors and 24 x 3-inch bolts), still in place in the hotel’s lobby as an entrance to The Treasury – a modern bar and eatery. Since it was too early for its bar to open, we wandered across the street to the Woodgrain Brewery for lunch before returning to The Treasury for cocktails. The, we returned our car to the airport before checking into our hotel for our last night in South Dakota.

South Dakota – Part 2

The Black Hills represent an uplift and exposure of older, harder sediments to the surface. These exposed granites form the basis for the carvings of Mount Rushmore and The Crazy Horse Monument.  The geographic high caused water runoff to the east to seriously erode the softer, uplifted prairie sediments giving rise to the erosive canyons of the Badlands. A geologic map clearly shows the natural consequence of this uplift. The “Black Hills” get their name from the native Lakota Tribe who referred to the area by its dark appearance due to the tree-covered mountains at a distance.

Early Monday morning, we left the hotel and headed back to Mount Rushmore for a day viewing, only to be met by 31-degree weather and freezing sleet! At Mount Rushmore, we hiked in a cold rain to the base of the rubble pile, referred to as “The President’s Trail.” From there, we could see each President’s carved face up-close.  We then shopped at the Visitor’s Center and reviewed the museum of the memorial’s construction, as the Governor prepared for a Press Conference outside to announce the “Opening of the State” in time for Tourist Season which would begin on Memorial Day! Mount Rushmore was a huge project that began in 1927 and was supposed to take 5-years and $500,000 to complete.  It was proposed by the South Dakota State Historian to include Native Americans and American Frontiersmen, but when it was funded and directed by the Federal Government and they assigned famous sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, to the Project, it was changed to include only the faces of four U.S. Presidents. Controversy and delays plagued the Project which ended up taking 14 years and over $1 million dollar to complete. 400 workers climbed 700 stairs every day to punch in on a time clock before being lowered by cables over the 500-foot face of the mountain to begin work using crude chisels and dynamite. The area below the faces included a camp and power generation for everything that they would need. As defects in the rock were discovered, Borglum would move the faces around and reposition them on a huge scale model that would be updated and used for measurements to guide the carving. Technically, the land belongs to the Native American Indigenous Tribes, however no movement to return it has yet taken place. 

After visiting Mount Rushmore, we drove to the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial where we toured the Indian Museum of North America and its huge collection of art and artifacts from more than 300 Native American tribes and took a bus trip to the base of the carving. The memorial, which occupies a 600-foot-tall mountain, commemorates the Lakota leader Crazy Horse, and is dedicated to preserving and sharing the living history and culture of all Native Americans. This incredible memorial, which is still under construction, is 2nd and 3rd Generation family-owned and privately funded and will likely take 100+ years to reach completion. The family of the original sculptor wants to preserve the original intent of the memorial and does not trust allowing it to fall under Government funding or control. 

After visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial, we made a short trip to Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave National Park is about 10 miles north of the town of Hot Springs and was made a National Park in 1903 by President Teddy Roosevelt. Wind Cave was the U.S.’s 7th National Park and the first cave in the world to be designated a National Park The dry cave was discovered by the Bingham Brothers in 1881 when they heard wind rushing out from a small hole in the ground. The cave was then opened to visitors in 1892 and tourists explored by candlelight. After we descended ~200ft down roughhewn steps, we observed calcite formations known as “boxwork”, which are extremely rare, as well as “moon’s milk” and “popcorn” formations. We explored a small part of the extensive cave network before we rode an elevator back to the surface.

After returning to the hotel, we took some time to relax in the hot tub before showering and have dinner again at the Buglin’s Bull.

On Tuesday, we drove to Custer State Park, and, as had been the occurrence on most of this trip, there was no one at the open park entrance. We drove along the Wilderness Loop until we came upon a small group of wild burros that had descended from abandoned miners’ stock from over 100 years ago. They were clearly looking for a handout, but we rolled-up our windows and moved slowly along.  Along the journey, we saw baby bison and a herd of pronghorns before we arrived at the Visitor’s Center to register for a Day Pass and collect a few maps.  After stopping for passing groups of Bighorn Sheep, we finally turned onto the 37-mile-long Needles Highway where we came upon several wild Turkeys with a large male spreading his tail feathers for show.  The road grew narrower and twisty and became limited to automobiles and small trucks only.

Eventually, we came upon the Mountain Pinnacles and Iron Rock Tunnel – the first tunnel as one heads northwest through the Pinnacles.  This road was cut and was considered as a possible site for the Mount Rushmore sculpture, but after inspection was deemed too unstable. These tunnels are only fit for 1 vehicle passing through at a time, and the walls miss our car by less than 1-foot!  Next, we reach the famous Needles Eye Tunnel – a narrow crack that has been tunneled at the base that barely fits our Dodge Charger through, and only after we are sure no traffic is approaching from the other direction. After passing through the “eye of the Needle” we come upon Sylvan Lake and stop for a bite of lunch before embarking on a hike around the lake, where snow and ice are still present in the shadows of the granite pillars. We then take the Needles highway back into the center of Custer Park where we explored scenic valleys, seldom traveled dirt roads, and charred hills from recent forest fires. At the edge of the park, we came upon a huge herd of bison (over 1000 head) coming slowly down from the high country heading for the rich valleys of the park, many with young calves in-tow. 

After watching the Bison, we exit Custer Park and head toward the town of Hot Springs – an old 1800’s town with a multitude of natural hot springs, a national cemetery, and the state’s largest Veterans Hospital. A local BBQ stand won over our temptation, and we stopped for a small beef brisket snack and conversation with the owner, before getting back on the road for the trip back to our hotel in Custer.

South Dakota

Part 1

It is April 2021, and the worldwide Covid-19 Pandemic that has kept everyone from traveling is beginning to come under control. Although International travel is still nearly impossible, travel within the United States has become a possibility, especially if one has been vaccinated against the virus, as Julie and Rocky were with 2 Moderna shots in January and February.  Therefore, it seemed appropriate to travel somewhere where we had never gone and where we could enjoy the great outdoors without crowds.  South Dakota seemed to be just the right place.

South Dakota and Eastern Wyoming are parts of the country a bit “off-the-grid” and the home of numerous spectacular landscapes, animals, parks, and attractions. We decided to fly American Airlines from our home in Florida on Saturday, May 1st, 2021, through Charlotte to Sioux Falls, S.D. and pick up a rental car to use for sightseeing. The trip took most of the day, but upon our arrival in Sioux Falls at ~4:00pm, we were pleasantly surprised by 1) 93-degree temperatures, and 2) the Enterprise Car Rental Agent, as we were upgraded at no charge to a Dodge Charger.  We then sought to drive west ~290 miles to the town of Wall where we had motel reservations. Since the speed limit on I-90 is 80 mph, the trip was fast and enjoyable with sightings of deer, pheasants, and extensive prairies (The author of “Little House on the Prairie”, Laura Engels Wilders, home is marked here), giving way to hills, wind farms, and Minuteman silos. After passing the town of “1880” we arrived in Wall and checked into our motel.  Quickly freshening up, we traveled to the old town center for a late dinner but found most shops already closed for the evening. Instead, we grabbed dinner in The Badlands Saloon, where we talked with locals at the bar. After a pleasant evening, we called it night and prepared for exploring the Badlands the next morning.

The famous Wall Drug Store

Sunday morning, the sun came up early, and after getting a “grab-and-go” breakfast from the motel and checking out, we set off for the nearby Pinnacles Gate Entrance to The Badlands National Park. The temperature was now in the 50’s, as we went to the nearby Pinnacles Overlook.  From there we could see a few Bison roaming near the Sage Creek Run Road, so we headed down to look.  After watching the Bison, we traveled further down the Sage Creek Run Road, taking in several overlooks with views into the Badlands, before finally reaching the Robert’s Prairie Dog Town where thousands of Prairie Dogs scurry about chattering and yelping their “all clear” signals. We then returned to the main road stopping to take pictures of Mountain Goats and more Bison.

Upon traveling deeper into the park, we stopped at Ancient Hunter’s Overlook, and then at Yellow Mounds Overlook where the rising sun delivered stunning colors of the geologic layers. Here we saw more Mountain Goats and our first group of Bighorn Sheep. We continued through the park stopping at each overlook and enjoying the variety of park animals until we got to a short hike along the Fossil Exhibit Trail – a boardwalk that highlights fossils derived from different ages of local sediments. 

We then hiked the Saddle Pass Trail through eroded Badlands’ terrain, until we returned to our car and drove to the Cedar Pass Gift Shop and visited the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center.  From here, we hiked the Cliff Shelf Trail and tackled the Notch Trail, which included a somewhat climb and return descent on an unstable trail ladder. After a lunch snack at the car, we hiked the Door Trail and explored the views from the Windows Trail. 

We then exited the park at its eastern end and began the western trip back to the town of Custer. Along the way, we stopped to look at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and Visitor Center, but it was closed on Sunday.  Upon traveling back through Wall, we visited the tourist attraction “Wall Drug”, which is a series of stores that sell nearly everything one could think of and also sells 5-cent coffee!  In the back, they have a huge historical collection, and “protect” it with a very realistic T-Rex who comes to animated, mechanical life every hour! After shopping, we continued to the town of Custer, which is located near the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.  After checking in to our motel, we had dinner at the Buglin’ Bull Restaurant before heading over to Mount Rushmore for its evening lighting of the memorial. Every night, the lights illuminate the faces of the four presidents until 11:00pm. We then returned to the motel for a welcomed night’s sleep.