Spectacular South Dakota

It’s been a spectacular week for the campshaws. Who knew that western South Dakota could be such a fantastic place to camp? It surely was off our radar.

We rolled through Mount Rushmore on a nearly perfect fall afternoon. Bright blue skies, fluttering yellow cottonwoods, and nearly zero traffic. wp-1476558098888.jpgI remember doing the Family Vacation drive-thru in this area when I was about 10 years old. We were probably here for about twenty minutes before jumping back into the station wagon and moving on. This time, John and I had the time and the interest to explore. First up was a Ranger talk at the Sculptor’s studio, where we viewed a 1:12 scale model, and learned a bit of the process to create the Monument.wp-1476558162238.jpgBriefly, it took 14 years, with about 40 men at a time (over 400 total) working to finish the job. Note that the model has a much larger view than the finished Monument. By the time the heads were completed, it was October 1941, and WWII was looming. Additional funding from Congress was needed to proceed, and it was determined that the best course of action was to declare the sculpture complete.

At the Visitor Center, the film and exhibits of the creation of Mount Rushmore are well worth whatever time you have to spend. It’s an amazing project. One amazing fact we learned was the the sculptor Borglum alone decided on the heads to be featured – the original project was planned to feature heroes of the West, but he felt that broader appeal was necessary to get people to come to remote South Dakota to visit. Can you imagine a project funded with federal money today ceding control to one individual? The Ranger at the Sculptors studio assured us that, no matter what we read on the internet, this project is COMPLETE. No additional heads will ever be added. Sorry, Ronald Regan.wp-1476558244839.jpgWe moved on from Mount Rushmore to Custer State Park, where we camped for two nights in one of the nicest State Parks we have ever visited. wp-1476558337443.jpgThe heart of Custer SP is its bison herd, which numbers in the hundreds. A brand new Visitor Center opened this year (which rivals many of the National Park Visitor Venters). The video there is superlative – a huge curved screen, gigantic sound, and amazing video quality put you right in the middle of the annual bison round-up. It’s spectacular.

wp-1476559295589.jpg One day was spent cycling around the Wildlife Loop Road, where we waited out a large bull bison hanging out near the road. After watching videos of how quickly these 2000 pound animals can move, there was no way we were going to try to cycle past him. We did decide not to pass by this trio of inquisitive wild donkeys, accosting the car ahead. I call this photo Jackass on Bicycle Ecounters Three Donkeys and Car. wp-1476883164446.jpgHonestly, the next day, when we were driving out, we got in a donkey jam. Everyone was out of their cars, feeding apples to the adorable crew. One woman was carrying her yappy dog, and standing outside where the donkeys were nipping at her. That’s crazy. They are pretty big. wp-1476559270461.jpgI prefer to look at them from the inside of the truck.wp-1476558739734.jpgThe famous Needles Highway was our route out of Custer State Park. Famous for its twisty path through the black granite “needles” of the Black Hills, it features two of the narrowest tunnels I ever hope to pass through. The Eye of the Needle was a mere 8’4″ wide.wp-1476640618952.jpg The second tunnel is a spacious 8’10” wide.

It’s a gorgeous drive, with several scenic turnoffs. Naturally, we stopped at them all. Small wonder that it takes us all day to drive 200 miles.wp-1476640329630.jpgNational Forest Campgrounds are overall our favorite places to camp. We found a beauty at Sheridan Lake, in the Black Hills National Forest.wp-1476559149774.jpg It’s a huge campground, but just one loop of 25 sites or so was open. An enormous site overlooking the lake was ours. Except for the wind rustling through the pines, there was little sound. We hiked, and John found time to use his new fishing pole for the first time (with the purchase of a $16 one-day license).wp-1476802699751.jpg No fish tacos for dinner though – he failed to even get a nibble on the delicious-looking lure at the end of the line. If you’re going this way, I would highly recommend this rustic campground – it’s a gem.

Our primary reason for choosing this campground near Hill City was that we wanted to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sculptor Korczak Zielkowski had received a letter from Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, asking him to come to the Black Hills and carve a mountain, stating “my fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, also.” Work began on the gigantic Crazy Horse Memorial in 1948, and continues to this day.wp-1476558834671.jpg It’s hard to describe the scale of this project.

wp-1476558875960.jpgThe four heads of Mt. Rushmore would fit neatly into Crazy Horse’s flowing hair. Will it ever get completed? Hard to say. With no federal or state monies, the project is funded by donations only. Currently, just fourteen men are working on the mountain. The plans call for Crazy Horse’s hair and arm/hand to be completed in the next 15 years. Visit and contribute if you can – it’s an inspiring project, continued since the death of Korczak in 1982, by his wife and 5 of his ten children. The Visitor Center, with its 1:34 scale model and American Indian Museum is well worth a few hours of time. I hope to be around in 20 years to come back and check on the progress. As we left, the mountain was lit by a spectacular sunset.wp-1476559241986.jpgEver heard of Wind Cave National Park? Me, neither, although it’s the 7th National Park signed into existence by Teddy Roosevelt. Famous for the unique “boxwork” on the ceiling, it’s one of the largest caves in the world – featuring over 125 miles of cave in just a square mile. Interestingly, there are caves on at least three different levels, unconnected from top to bottom. We visited the VC, watched the movie, but elected not to go on a tour. It was late, the last tour of the day was about to start, and we were anxious to get to the campground and strike camp for the night. This crazy little campground had just a few sites, and our fee was just $4.50.20161019_074355.jpg It was like camping in a wind tunnel – man did it blow! But, we were treated to the bugleing of elk in the early morning hours (although we didn’t see them), and an amazing sunrise.wp-1476884700440.jpg Maybe we’ll revisit some day and actually tour the cave as well.

We’ve moved on to the Badlands, but that’s a story of its own. This post has dragged on long enough! We’ve covered very few miles in a week, but there is so much to explore in this corner of South Dakota. We are pointed toward Michigan, and begin our trek eastward in earnest today.

Mother Nature and the Devil

After much (extended) discussion, we finally agreed that our next destination should be Devil’s Tower National Monument, just over the border into Wyoming. Then, depending on the weather outlook, we would either forge on to Yellowstone, or turn east and head to the Black Hills, etc., and back toward home.

We eagerly scanned the horizon for the first glimpse of the Tower – when you first see it, it’s a remarkable sight. Standing tall, all alone in the landscape. All the Travel Gods were lined up on our side as we rolled into Belle Fourche Campground, at the base of the Tower.wp-1476277183760.jpg For a mere $6, we had a primo site, nestled among some glorious cottonwoods, with a commanding view of the Tower. Truly, it doesn’t get any better than this (except for a very stiff wind).

After docking the Fireball, we quickly grabbed a bottle of water and headed off to explore the Tower. The sun was shining, and temps were in the 70s – shorts and t-shirt weather. Up close, Devil’s Tower is even more impressive.

Its vertical columns are the largest of its type in the world – up to 600 feet high, and 5-7 feet wide. Voices float through the air, and you realize that climbers dot the sides. It’s crazily beautiful. We took a 1.5 mile trail around the base, then doubled back and strolled another couple of miles until we reached the path back to the campground.wp-1476277236873.jpg Truly, I don’t think we could have had a better afternoon.

Good thing. The next morning, I crawled out of bed, and wandered over to the bathroom. Getting back to the Fireball, I announced to John, “It’s gone. The Tower is gone!” A thick icy mist/fog had rolled in overnight, and totally obscured our magnificent view. What?wp-1476277255369.jpgIn freezing wind/rain/sleet, we packed up, our decision made. We would make the swing back east. Snow and wind pelted us along the road, so a short day seemed like a good plan. That pointed us to Deadwood, SD – an old mining town remade into a rambling, gambling vacation destination. Not many campground are open, so here we are at the Days of 76 Campground (a glorified parking lot). The plus side is a warm bathroom, and laundry facilities. And, we can walk to town to see the sights.

Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are both buried at Mt Moraih Cemetery here, so we trudged up to check this out.

What a gorgeous cemetery – sections for the Chinese and Jews, and other groups who comprised Deadwood’s community in the mining days of the 1870s-80s. A Children’s section, and three Potters Fields reflect the harshness of life. It’s beautifully kept.20161012_064353.jpg Here’s Calamity Jane’s grave, right next to Wild Bill’s.wp-1476276273440.jpg The walking tour guide that comes with your $2 admission provides lots of colorful information on the cemetery’s residents, and the chatty guy in the ticket booth filled us in on whatever else he thought we needed to know about Deadwood (including the best spot to grab a beer).

So, off to Saloon #10 we went – the spot where Wild Bill was shot and killed by Jack McCall.wp-1476276022120.jpg Bill’s Death Chair is still enshrined there – in its own lighted compartment over the door.20161012_064100.jpgDeadwood was an interesting stop. Lots of old-timey stuff to gawk at, a beautifully restored courthouse, and interesting geography (it’s nestled into a steep valley).

It was cold and miserable walking around, and most of my photos aren’t worth posting, so you’ll have to use your imagination, or visit yourself.

The big snow predicted for last night didn’t materialize, and we are moving on today. In the next two days, temps are supposed to climb back into the 70s. The Fireball rolls on.