Our adventure continues as we head to the Black Hills of South Dakota. It’s a magical place with a rich history and fabled stories of the old west. The small isolated mountain range arising from the Great Plains was given its name by the Lakota Indians because of its dark appearance from afar. However, the mountains are not black. In fact, they are a lush green. The trees covering the mountains mark the transition from high plain grasslands to the dense forests of the northwest.
We set up camp at Custer State Park and for the next six days focused on seeing the sights in the southern half of the Black Hills. Custer State Park is not only South Dakota’s premier state park, but is often listed among the top state parks in the country. Encompassing 71,000 acres, it is best known for its herds of bison, commonly called buffalo, and its scenic drives across the grassland and mountains.
There are eleven campgrounds at Custer State Park ranging from primitive tent sites to modern RV sites. There is also a group camping site and a horse camp with stables. Reservations are difficult to get and should be made a year in advance to insure a spot. We, however, didn’t make our reservations until February of this year and had to settle for a site without hook ups in the North Stockade campground. Not as bad as it may seem. The shower house was across the road as was the water spigot to refill our onboard fresh water tank and I ran the generator to recharge the batteries whenever they were low.
Obviously it didn’t take long after we arrived to set up camp because there was nothing to hook up. So we unhitched and jumped back in the truck for a ride to the visitor center. The staff there was friendly and extremely helpful. They gave us a map of the park and pointed out where our best chances of seeing the bison herds were. They showed us where to look for other wildlife and how to get to the best scenic drives. They invited us into the theater where we watched a short film about the park.
Armed with all this new information, we took off in search of the wild buffalo herds. Following the ranger’s directions, we drove out on Wildlife Loop Road and turned onto an unpaved road located near the Wildlife Station Visitor Center. All alone, we were soon surrounded by a herd of bison crossing the road. Wow! This unintended up close view showed us just how big these animals are. Some weigh as much as a ton.
There were small calves in the herd that looked to be only a few days old. “Aww, look how cute”, I heard Grammi say as she clicked off a bunch of pictures. A large cow sniffed the truck’s bumper then stood there blocking our progress until all the calves were safely across the road. This was certainly an unforgettable experience.
That was not the only time we were surrounded by wild beast. Back on Wildlife Loop Road were some donkeys impeding our progress. Apparently they were stopping traffic to collect a toll. The car in front of us offered carrots and was allowed to pass. Then they set their sights on us. Oh no! It looked like those donkeys meant business. Luckily, Grammi found some cookies in the snack bag. That should do the trick. Can you believe those wild beast stuck their head right through the window and ate from Grammi’s hand? Okay, maybe they’re not all that wild, but they are still a beast.
We saw some other wildlife in the park too. We saw whitetail and mule deer, prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, and we even saw one elk. Spotting wildlife is a favorite activity for us in the parks.
The next day we went to see the Crazy Horse Memorial. It’s a mountain sculpture of Crazy Horse, a famous Lakota warrior, riding a horse. The project began seventy-three years ago and is far from completed. We could see workers on the mountain drilling and chiseling during our visit. Crazy Horse’s face has emerge from the mountain and the rest of the monument is taking shape. A completion date is not known.
We paid $24.00 and started our tour at the Welcome Center and Museum. We were fascinated by the many interesting displays and artifacts. A profile view of Crazy Horse can be seen from the visitor center. In fact, the profile can be seen when driving past along highway 385. I was a bit perturbed to learn we had to pay an additional $3.00 per person for a bus ride to see the full front view of Crazy Horse’s face, but our native american tour guide who looked a lot like Billy Jack, told interesting stories and was full of information making the experience worth it.
Next we went to Mount Rushmore. On our way, we passed an old mountain goat. I say “old” mountain goat because it had a long white beard, but I don’t really know how old it was. He, at least I think it was a he, was eating the grass on the side of the road. This mountain goat never so much raised its head to look at us when we stopped to say hello. He was an indifferent old guy, but we were still pleased to meet him.
Mount Rushmore was spectacular. A sense of patriotic pride arose as the monument came into view. I was ecstatic and got goosebumps as this was something I’d always hoped to see someday. We sat at the Grand View Terrace for a long while and studied every detail of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
We spent time exploring the exhibits inside the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and watched a documentary film. We didn’t walk the Presidential Trail to the bottom of sculpture. A sculpture is best viewed from a distance and with 422 stairs, I didn’t feel it would be worth the effort. We spent a couple of hours at the monument in all.
We drove back to Custer State Park on the Iron Mountain Road. The brochure says it is 17 miles of very scenic highway rising to a 5,445-foot summit with 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 pigtails and 3 tunnels. Wow! It was an awesome drive. The one-way tunnels were so narrow that I had to bring in the side mirrors to pass through.
The tunnels are aligned with views of Mount Rushmore so you can see the president’s faces when driving through, or in our case the rearview mirror (Note to self: next time drive from Custer State Park to Mount Rushmore). We did pull off to take pictures through the tunnels. It was really cool to see.
Another scenic drive we did the next day was the Needles Highway. Actually we did it twice on two different days. It was a cloudy day the first time. That turned out to be a frightening experience. The further we drove, the more foggy it became, until I couldn’t see beyond the bumper. Besides not being able to see the views, I couldn’t see the road. It wasn’t until we drove it on a clearer day that I realized how close we were to some steep drop offs. I don’t recommend it.
I do recommend driving the highway on a clear day though. The winding road up through granite spires that look like needles pointing to the sky offer spectacular views. A rock formation just outside of one of the tunnels has an oval shaped hole resembling the eye of a needle. Hmm, that was cool!
I also recommend stopping at Sylvan Lake near the western end of the highway. It’s a beautiful mountain lake area offering camping, picnicking, fishing, hiking and swimming. There is also the Sylvan Lake Lodge and a general store. Grammi and I stopped there to have lunch in the park and we climbed around on the rocks overlooking the beautiful lake.
We went to Wind Caves National Park. I like to make our visits to national parks the subject of their own post. Even though this post is getting long, my comments about Wind Caves National Park will not be. Wind Caves National Park is a mere 34 miles from Custer State Park. We made the drive early one morning, but not early enough. Tickets for the cave tours were already sold out for the day.
The park ranger told us that the tickets typically sellout shortly after they open the doors at 8:00 a.m. She said that if we are not in line before seven o’clock in the morning our chances of getting a ticket are slim. All tickets sales are day-of and in person. There is no online tickets sales available. I think that should be an option. With six tours per day going into the cave with a 30 person limit, that is less than 200 people per day touring the cave. Some additional tours are added as the busy summer season progresses, but for Grammi and I, there will be no cave tour this time around.
So what did we do while we were there?
— We took our “we were there” photo in front of the national park sign.
— We walked through the visitor center looking at the exhibits and got our passport book stamped.
— We did a short hike to see the natural cave opening. You could feel a strong wind coming from the hole. That is why the park is named Wind Cave.
— We drove through the Elk Mountain Campground. We were not impressed. The sites are small. I didn’t see many we could fit into. There are no hook ups, although water is provided in the campground but not at the campsites. All sites are first-come first-serve. And…by-the-way, a large portion of the campground was barricaded with a sign saying it was closed.
— We went to see Beaver Creek Bridge, an arched bridge built in 1929 spanning 225-feet connecting the national park to Custer State Park. I saw pictures of the bridge on everything sold in the gift shop. Magnets, posters, coffee mugs, t-shirts, postcards and so-forth. It is strange to me that a park known for a cave has a bridge as a feature photo. We had to see it for ourselves. I would have rather seen the cave.
— We drove road 5 through the Red Valley. The ranger recommended we drive this unpaved road for viewing wildlife. We didn’t see any wildlife…oh wait a minute…we did see some prairie dogs. I will say it was an isolated drive across the prairie with a serene beauty. It felt like there was no one around for miles. We stopped to have a picnic lunch.
I can usually look back to see how well we liked a place by the the number of pictures we took. We took over 300 picture last week in the badlands. We took nearly 500 photos last year at Yosemite National Park. I took 6 photos at Wind Caves National Park. I guess that sums it up.
Do you use Facebook? We have a Facebook page at http:www.facebook.com/grammiandgrampa/. We post updates and let followers know when we’ve added a new blogpost. It was through Facebook where I saw a couple of friends were in the Black Hills too. Gary was on his annual cross-country motorcycle ride with a buddy and Danny was vacationing with his wife. I worked with both of those guys during our careers in the fire service. It really is a small world.
We all met at Gary’s campsite. It was a wet and rainy day. Not a good day for riding a motorcycle. So Gary and his buddy Winston climb in the truck and we went for lunch. Danny and his wife, Dee, followed behind, or at least they tried (they finally made it). Winston was a down-to-earth guy and easy to talk to. It was a lot of fun cutting up, shooting the breeze, and reminiscing about the old days.
None of us had plans on such a miserable weather day, so we thought a drive to Custer State Park for sightseeing and wildlife hunting would be a good idea. The wildlife was scarce. I think they were hunkered down for the approaching storm. It hit hard. The wind rocked the truck, hail knocked on the roof, trees were uprooted and water rushed over the road.
We went back to our campsite. Damage from the storm was apparent all around. An awning was blown over a motorhome. A tree fell across the road. Hail covering the ground looked like snow fall. We were lucky this time. We saw no damage to our camper.
The next evening we met our friends one more time in Hill City for dinner. It was round two for the shooting the breeze and reminiscing. It was an unexpected pleasure to see these guys so far from home. We’ll see them again this winter at the monthly Old Fireman’s Luncheon (my name, not the official name). Also we will see them in February when we all meet up for a camping trip in North Florida.
In the next post, we will still be in the Black Hills exploring the northern half of this wonderful area.
So until next time…happy days and safe travels.