Black Hills National Forest in South
Labor Day weekend 2008
For Labor Day weekend 2008 we had planned a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We had booked a flight from Palm Beach to Rapid City already back in February, as well as a log cabin for three nights up in the fresh air of the Black Hills. I had been there exactly 6 years ago, but for Philip and Jill it was their first trip to the Southwest corner of South Dakota with its hills, forests, wild life, state parks, National Monuments and caves…
We get up early in the morning and drive to the Palm Beach airport. Our flight leaves at 8:30am. We got Philip out of school for this one day – at least he is studying while on the airplane to compensate J
The flight via Chicago to Rapid City is uneventful. We get our rental car – a Toyota Highlander – and start driving. The air is crisp and it feels good to see the foot hills and pine forest to the West of Rapid City.
We soon arrive at our first destination, the Mt. Rushmore National Memorial.
The heads of the 4 presidents become visible in the distance, and soon we find ourselves in some huge parking garage and then walk out past pillars with the flags of each of the 50 United States towards the Monument.
We spend some time reading the various signs and studying the history of how artist Gutzon Borglum conceived of the sculptures and how they were carved out of the rock over more than a decade between 1927-1941.
A walkway through the woods leads us to the bottom of the hill, below the debris that has fallen from the rock walls. From there one gets the closest view of the 4 presidents.
From left to right:
For more details, see Mt. Rushmore’s Wikipedia site.
After this first stop we continue on the so-called Iron Mountain Road to the South towards the Custer State Park. The road is narrow and windy; at times it loops in 360˚ turns like a corkscrew stair around itself to gain altitude in narrow spaces. Then there are small one-way tunnels carved out of the granite rock.
After a short drive we intersect with Highway 16A and pass the Legion Lake where we will have dinner a short time later.
But first we go on towards the South until we reach the Blue Bell Lodge, our home for the next three nights. It’s all quite rustic up here at 1500m (5000ft) in the woods, with nice modern log cabins as guest houses.
We check in and place our bags inside our cabin. We soon leave again to drive to the nearby restaurant for dinner. We have Bison skewers this evening, and will have Bison meat on more than one occasion during the rest of this trip.
After coming back from dinner it is dark. Make that pitch-black dark. No city lights or anything. We can see thousands of stars and the Milky Way seems as clear as I have ever seen it. The cabins have a fireplace both inside and outside, and a bundle of fire-wood comes with the cabin every night. So we ignite a small camp fire and enjoy the change of scenery from the hot and humid weather in South Florida this time of the year.
Having gained 2 hours during the time-zone change, it almost feels like midnight for us when the fire dies down at 9:30pm local time. We fall into a deep sleep with the fresh mountain air breezing through open windows…
After a long and good night sleep we get up and walk to the lodge for breakfast. The sky is clear and the morning air is crisp. What a great sunny day awaits us!
Old hayride wagons line the road as well as some other artifacts from yesteryear sitting on the lawn in front of the Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park.
Our first destination today is Harney Peak, the highest peak in South Dakota. We drive along the “Needles Highway” towards Sylvan Lake, about ½ hr away from our lodge. The road is lined with rugged granite needles in the forest, which attract many rock-climbers.
Sylvan Lake is an idyllic little place in the NW corner of Custer State Park, at the base of Harney Peak.
We park the car and lace our hiking shoes for the half-day hike to Harney Peak and back. Philip, although not necessarily a big fan of mountain hiking, seems excited about the trip.
We pack some bottles of water and a few snacks before heading uphill. The weather couldn’t be better, with the August sun already packing a lot of heat in the morning as we begin hiking around 10:00am. It is comfortable hiking in the shadow of the trees, which at times give way to a view of the surrounding needles and rock formations.
Today Jill and I take full advantage of our camelbacks with a half gallon of cold water in each of our backpacks. We will need plenty of water on this hike, as the sun heats up the air quite quickly. We also apply plenty of sunscreen up here in the clear mountain air.
Soon we clear the surrounding foothills and the views open up towards the Great Plains to the East. I still have vague memories of this place from my trip some 6 years ago when I came here for a weekend trip from Fargo, North Dakota.
As we get higher and closer to the summit, we need to negotiate some rocks towards the end. There are some stairs and a ladder in the rocks to allow for an easy way to the top.
Shortly thereafter we top out at the Stone building which was constructed as a fire fighting observation tower. This is an elegant structure which fits nicely on the summit.
I certainly remember this building at the very top from 6 years ago. Back then digital cameras did not have as impressive resolutions as they do nowadays, but I did have beautiful evening light on that day.
Today Jill, Philip and I have a lot more time to spend on the summit. So we walk around on the rock plateau and explore some other sections.
There are no handrails up there, so in a few places one has to pay close attention.
With plenty of time, drinks and snacks at hand, we enjoy the scenery and have a good time. Philip seems to have my T-Shirt logo written over his facial expression: “Life is good”
After a while we start the descent. I take the opportunity to climb a nearby rock pillar for a special panoramic view with the observation tower in the picture.
For this picture in full resolution as well as many other panorama views see here.
A leisure walk in the woods brings us back down to the parking lot at Sylvan Lake. Due to the great heat I decide spontaneously to go for a swim in this mountain lake. What refreshment in the cool water! After one round around a big boulder Philip decides to join in on the fun.
We get back on shore and let the sun and hot wind blow-dry our swim shorts. What a day. And it isn’t over. After short drive back to the lodge we decide to visit the Wind Cave National Park just a few miles to the South.
There are gazelles and bison along the road, so we stop frequently to take pictures.
Thankfully this great animal has made somewhat of a comeback in the various State and National Parks and there are now many thousands of these buffalo up here in the mid-west.
It is already 4:30pm when we get to the Visitor Center. There is a hot wind out of the South blowing at maybe 25 mph. This would be great tailwind bike riding weather, just like on my tailwind ride from Fargo to Winnipeg back in June 2003. The smell and the hot wind remind me of these adventures on the bicycle…
We join the last cave tour of the day. It starts at the place where the cave was first discovered some 100 years ago. A deceptively small opening is the only opening of what is the fourth-largest cave system in the world. Like in a pressure relief valve, the air is blowing out from the cave, indicating falling air pressure outside.
Of course the visitor doesn’t have to crawl into this small opening anymore to enter the cave. There is a stairway down and later an elevator back up for the tourists.
The tour takes about 1.5 hrs. The wind cave shows some interesting formations on the walls, the formation of which can be explained from the geological processes at work over millions of years.
The original limestone revealed pressure cracks, and some minerals seeped into those cracks forming a lattice. Later the limestone eroded away, leaving behind only the mineral formations now called box-work after the post-office boxes. Tomorrow we will see another cave with different formations…
On the way home we detour onto the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park. This is as close to a Safari as I have come outside of Africa. We see gazelles, deer, bison, wild turkeys, horses, and even some big-horn sheep. The warm and low evening sun paints a beautiful yellow light on this scenery.
At the end of the loop road we reach the Game Lodge, a popular presidential retreat for Theodore Roosevelt, also referred to as his Summer White House.
We have servings of game food – venison and elk - and a delicious dinner all around. What a way to end a great vacation day! Today we are too tired for a camp-fire – instead we just take a quick shower and go to bed. After all, we want to get up a bit earlier tomorrow…
We get up before 7:00am as we want to get an early start for our trip today. But first I am surprised by what I see when I open the front door of our cabin:
A big specimen of a bison bull grazes calmly on the grass right in front of our balcony – you don’t see that every day! Watch out on the way to your car; don’t irritate the bison, they can run up to 35mph, so there is no outrunning an angry bison…
We drive back towards Highway 16A and follow it West to the little town of Custer. There we have breakfast in a local restaurant and wonder whether the folks of this little rural outpost have already caught up to the twenty-first century.
Our next stop is the Jewel Cave National Monument. At first things look good, due to the fact that we are there at 8:45am – 15 minutes prior to their opening – and there are only very few cars in the parking lot. However, we soon find out that most of today’s cave tours are already sold out! So we quickly re-arrange our days schedule and make a reservation for the last tour of the day at 3:45pm. We will be back.
We drive further west and cross over into Wyoming to connect at the town of Newcastle with Highway 85 going north.
For the next hour or so we see very little traffic and only occasionally pass a few farm houses. We talk about whether these people have Internet connection and whether we would want to live in such a remote place.
At Four Corners we follow Hwy 585 NW to Sundance, a small town alongside Interstate Hwy 90. From here it’s only some 25 miles or so to the Devils Tower National Monument.
Again, this reminds me of my previous trip – some details are still vividly clear in my memory, such as the road up to the Visitor Center or the trail around the base of the tower.
We pay the entrance fee, drive up to the visitor center, look around there a little bit and then get on the trail. As we get closer to the tower, we see plenty of climbing parties near the base and higher up on the vertical walls.
We take our time and sit down on the benches next to the binoculars provided for the tourists to gaze up at the climbers. I would guess there are probably 20-30 climbers on the tower; it’s like an over-sized playground. The entire tower is “only” about 850 ft (250m) tall, so climbers don’t need to bring a lot of food and equipment as they can quickly get back down to the car at the parking lot.
After much neck-craning and some walking around the 2km loop trail we still have some 1.5-2 hrs of time to spare. So we embark on the longer Red Beds trail to get a view from a distance.
We also walk past flower meadows and see what gave this trail its name: The red clay layers which form on the East side near the entrance gate.
At 1:20pm we’re back at the car and begin our drive back to South Dakota. We certainly don’t want to miss our slot for the cave tour…
We exchange our hiking boots for more comfortable flip-flops or sandals and I take a short nap while Jill thankfully does the driving. Later I get to read some chapters of an interesting book on my Amazon Kindle.
Soon we’re back at the Jewel Cave National Monument.
A wildfire a few years ago has decimated the forest around the visitor center. However, the attraction here is underground. This cave was designated as National Monument 100 years ago in 1908. Back then only a small portion of the cave had been discovered. By now, more than 140 miles have been mapped, making this the second largest cave in the world!
Most of the formations are calcite crystals, left behind by evaporating water loaded with calcium. Almost all areas of the cave are coated with these crystals. In a few places the coating layer has broken off, revealing a view of the 10-20cm thick layer.
There are also a few stalactite and stalagmite formations.
A good explanation of the geology and more colorful pictures can be found here.
This evening we retreat to the comfort of (and the hot shower in) our cabin and then have dinner at our Blue Bell lodge. The weather has deteriorated and there are a few sprinkles of rain. Hence we have the fire at our open fire place inside the cabin today. Hopefully we can still complete our planned outdoor program for tomorrow morning…
We get up for breakfast at the lodge again. Unlike the inviting first two evenings, there is nobody sitting outside on the patio on this overcast morning.
So we sit inside in a rustic atmosphere under the watchful eye of many hunting trophies on the walls.
For our last morning Jill had made reservations for a guided horseback trail ride at the nearby stable.
We have to wait a little bit as our guide overslept this morning after working too hard for too long the last couple of days… Eventually we all get fitted on our horses and set out for a 2 hr trail ride.
Philip and I haven’t been riding all that much – maybe 2-3 times before – but Philip has quickly learned how to control the horse and seems to be having fun doing it.
The terrain is very scenic along a small creek meandering through the hills. We cross the little stream several times and walk up & down the surrounding hills.
It’s a great experience and luckily the sun comes out once more prior to a change in weather later today which will bring much colder weather to South Dakota (down to the 40’s and 30’s).
By the time we get back to the Stable it feels a lot more natural to ride, even though it requires strength in muscles I didn’t know I had! Consequently I almost cramp up when trying to get out of the saddle.
We chat a little more with our guide and she shows us some other beautiful horses. More tourists come in at this time, and we’re happy to have had a “private” tour just for the three of us.
Unfortunately it’s time for us to pack our bags and check out. After three nights we need to be heading for the airport again.
On the way we detour slightly to the top of the Mt. Coolidge Lookout at almost 2000m. There are a couple of antennae up there and a weather observation station.
The clouds are rolling in now and the increasing wind almost brings a chill and signals the coming weather change. No problem for us, though, as we need to get back and return the rental car at the airport anyway.
On our drive through Custer State Park we notice a couple of bicycle and motorcycle riders who are getting their wind and wet weather gear out. At Hermosa we follow Hwy 79 back north to Rapid City. When re-fueling the rental car at a gas-station I notice how it is much colder than just 24 hours ago.
We walk across the parking lot of the small airport and feel the cool breeze.
We spend the remaining time after check-in with lunch, or rather waiting for lunch, as we sit there waiting for our sandwich while watching the updates on hurricane Gustav battering New Orleans. We wait for 37 of the 40 available minutes, only to wolf it down in the remaining 3 minutes. After take-off, a last glance back through the window shows Rapid City and the foot-hills with the now low hanging clouds.
We were definitely lucky with the weather pattern. Our return trip via Chicago is uneventful again. Except for losing the two hours due to the time-zone change we feel happy and relaxed after this short but varied vacation. The Black Hills are definitely worth a trip, especially this time of the year.
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