Black Hills, South Dakota

07/16/2013 – 07/18/2013

After two days in the Badlands and 1800 miles of driving, I stayed at the Rapid City Motel 6 the following night to recharge everything and shower. (I also saw Pacific Rim… a great summer movie).

It’s funny, Teddy Roosevelt absolutely despised Jefferson. He’s stuck next to him on the mountain.

I got an early start the following day, because Mt Rushmore was on the agenda and I knew it would get crowded after it openedat 8 am. It was an hour drive to Mt Rushmore, and my first reaction upon seeing the mountain was… “that’s all?” Mt Rushmore is of course really famous, and it’s also on every South Dakota license plate. But it’s smaller than you’d think. The sculpture is impressive, but it’s rather peculiar – like someone took a tacky idea (carve 4 presidents into a mountain) and made it as dignified as possible.

There’s a nice granite entrance to the park and then the mountain is visible above a large plaza. There are classy pillars on either side with an inscription of each state, along with its flag and the date it became a state. At the end of this is an ampitheatre… which is used to view light shows on the mountain. Like I said… tacky and classy.

The original plan for the mountain. It couldn’t be completed because the rock wasn’t suitable.

I did a quick hike, which was also a bit disappointing – not at all close to the carving. The verdict: not worth the $11 (!) parking fee.

Mt Rushmore as seen from Custer.

Next stop was Custer State Park. Custer is supposed to be the “jewel of South Dakota state parks,” according to my guidebook (maybe a dubious honor), and it’s a spectacular, diverse park. The roads to Custer are winding, mountainous, and closed in with the ubiquitous pine forest of the Black Hills, so the maximum speed you can sustain is about 20 miles per hour.

The view from the top of the mountain.

After I got to the park, I went on a short hike – about 4 miles and my most strenuous to date. It was about a half mile switchback ascent toa beautiful view (pictures don’t do it justice) and then a slow descent to a river valley. I’d never seen as much poison ivy as I did in that valley. Needless to say, I was glad I wore long pants.

Pinnacles along the road.

After the hike I headed to the northern part of the park. This was via the Pinnacles scenic highway. This was as winding as the entry to the park, but there were various one-lane tunnels (“honk before entering”) through the mountains. One particular tunnel was about 200 feet long and had parking areas at either end; this caused an enormous traffic jam. I parked and wandered around the pinnacle, which actually allowed me to cross over the tunnel. It was fun, but I didn’t want to go through that again on the way south, so after I got through and found the northern campground was full, I decided to continue on to another nearby National Park: Wind Cave.

I managed to reach the park before the final tour of the day. Here’s the secret to cave tours, which I discovered 1/3 of the way through this tour. Unlike most cave tours, this one allowed flash photography – the people in front of me must have taken at least 50 photos… not an exaggeration. It really messes with your night vision. The secret is to be at the end of the tour. You can turn around, and it’s like you have the whole cave to yourself. You can take your time and catch up during the less interesting parts.

Wind Cave got its name because a local rancher supposedly discovered it when his hat was blown off by the wind, which is caused by a difference between the barometric pressure inside the cave and outside. It’s a peculiar cave: there’s no stalactites or stalagmites, but the walls have a strange curved look, and the intense wind creates a strange box-like formation (which unfortunately doesn’t photograph well).

Short hike near the Wind Cave visitor center.

After the tour I was still in a walking mood and 1.5 mile walk along a path near the visitor center (the original entry way was still visible and it felt like the AC was turned on outside in the late afternoon sun. This was really beautiful.

I had my first campfire of the trip that night, too (the firewood was free at the campground).

Campground at Wind Cave.

The next day I’d planned on doing a long overnight hike with some backwoods camping, but in the morning I found my battery had died. The previous evening I’d seen my GPS was still plugged in and drawing power directly from the battery, so after I got the car jumped, I drove to nearby Custer, South Dakota, to get some supplies and get enough driving time to charge it.

Upon returning to the park, I did a 6 mile hike through some canyons and nice prairie terrain. This wasn’t exactly a success. The trail was not well worn, and typically amounted to a barely-noticeable twisting of the grass. The trail markers had been broken, propped up with rocks, and then knocked down again.

After staring at the ground, huffing and puffing up one steep canyon ascent, I came to the top. As I was plodding along, I looked up and… there was a buffalo. Maybe 20 feet away. Buffalo will scratch themselves by rolling in the dirt. This leaves a distinctive oval pattern of bare earth, which is where this buffalo was sitting. I stopped immediately when I saw it, and we stared at each other. I took a step back, and he jumped up with a snort and ran about 30 feet further, then stared at me. I thought at first he was charging. Believe me, it was terrifying.

I’ve seen a lot of buffalo, but always from the window of a car. They’re a different beast when you’re on foot and there’s no car in sight: they’re about my height at the shoulder, and this one probably weighed a ton (literally). I backed away and the buffalo returned to its patch of ground, and I detoured around the path and continued hiking without further event.

Wind Cave from the highest point in the park.

Then I drove to the backcountry trail I was going to take, which started after about one and a half miles of gravel road. If the first trail was poorly marked, this one wasn’t marked at all. The path didn’t seem to follow the map, so after 15 minutes of hiking I decided to call it quits – it wasn’t worth hiking an unmarked path without an accurate map. Instead, I took a short 2 mile hike up a ridge to a former fire tower, which was the highest part of the park. It was a nice hike and a great view.

It rained that night. I was scrupulous this time about making sure all the lights were off and everything was unplugged. But the battery was still dead the following morning.

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