Normally this is the time of year when the family packs up the camping gear and heads for the lovely Colorado mountains for some exploration and readjustment. But this year, there’s still so much snow up there, we opted for the backup plan: head north east to some smaller, less snowy mountains. Namely, the Black Hills of South Dakota. Plus, it’s only six hours away and we’d never been there.
Colorado to Scottsbluff, NE. Hot. Sweltering, really. But Nebraska is New State #1 of the trip. We did some nice poking about at Scotts Bluff National Monument, drove up top, took in the views, and then found our campsite at the marvelously low-key Riverside Campground which features, among other amenities, a zoo. With lions. Which roar all night. So that was interesting. The heat broke with a doozy of a thunderstorm at bedtime. Besides the Bluff itself and the interesting Oregon Trail-related stuff, there’s nothing to hold us here. Tomorrow, onward to New State #2 and the main attraction.
While waking to the sound of roaring lions is a new experience, it turns out that peacocks make a hell of a racket pretty much all night long. Drove north through rolling farmland and intermittent rain to Agate Fossil Beds NM where they have a nice museum split between Cenozoic mammal fossils and local native American artifacts and history. A short hike up the Demonelix Trail brought us face to face with these mysterious trace burrow fossils.
North again to the main event of the day: the Mammoth Site of Hotsprings, SD. This was recommended to us by several friends and was well worth the stop. 190-140,000 years ago, mammoths started falling into a sinkhole and couldn’t get out. They’re now excavating the bones and you can tour the active dig site which they’ve conveniently built a museum around. So far they’re less than 1/3rd of the way down to the bottom of the old sink hole and have pulled up 60+ mammoths (all of them male, of course) as well as various other extinct critters such as short-faced bears. The tour was really excellent and we got to hang out afterwards and look around to our heart’s content.
As far as I’m concerned, the main reason to come to South Dakota is to take the kids to Jewel Cave and/or Wind Caves–both enormous cave systems with 100+ miles of mapped passages (and probably 10x that much as yet unexplored) and both in the top-10 longest cave systems in the world. Serious caves! Wind Cave wasn’t doing tours due to a broken elevator, so Jewel (which would have been my first choice anyway) it was!
We arrived at 9 am and got tickets for the 11:20 Scenic Tour (if you go, go early to get tickets because they sell out). After hanging out for a few hours, we suited up with warm coats, cameras, flashlights, and so forth and joined the tour. About 30 of us rode down an impressively long elevator into the Target Room. It was controversial at the time, but drilling an elevator entrance into the middle of the cave lets people experience a relatively pristine part of the system as well as not disturb the bats which roost a lot closer to the natural entrance.
It also lead to some really nice tours in the middle of this huge cave system. We were lead on a 1:20 tour covering about half a mile of walkways (concrete and metal) through towering canyons and under occasional huge breakdown blocks. Jewel Cave is known for nailhead spar crystals which is something I’ve never seen before and there were enough of the more conventional flowstone “pretties” to keep people interested though it was far from the prettiest cave I’ve seen.
After Jewel, we did a long driving tour through the impressive Custer State Park (which would be a national park almost anywhere else), got stuck for about an hour in the most impressive bison jam I’ve ever had the pleasure of, took in the view from Mt. Coolidge, and drove the torturously-long Needles Highway all the way back to camp. The latter was impressive, but would have been more fun had I not been stuck behind a pickup truck full of tourons from Arkansas who insisted on driving well below safe and prudent speeds.
You can’t visit the Black Hills without paying your respects at South Dakota’s Most Famous Thing (it’s even on the license plates and the state slogan): Mt. Rushmore. I wasn’t looking forward to it and expected it to be an overly-touristed underwhelment in the style of Stonehenge or the Statue of Liberty. But no, it was really pretty nifty! It’s something you’ve seen pictures of all your life, but in person, the carvings are grander than you expect. We hiked a loop getting different vantage points and many photos under bluebird skies. The crowds and parking were not onerous and my only complaint was that the visitor’s center and museum were closed for construction, so I couldn’t get all the historical information I wanted.
We lunched at Horsethief Lake (which is unrelated to our campground), then spent a lovely time doing a “choose our own adventure” scrambling up some of the cool rocks looking for rose quartz, tourmaline, and mica.
Back at camp, the weather threatened and there were no afternoon plans. Time for a run! I managed to find my way into the impressive Sunday Gulch, up to the lovey Sylvan Lake (part of Custer SP), then ran up toward Black Elk Peak (formerly called Harney Peak and still called South Dakota’s highest point). Time and weather didn’t permit a summit attempt, so I took a left down a trail marked on the map which would, in principle, shortcut through the Black Elk Wilderness to a road no more than a mile or two from camp. The reality was a muddy and narrow bit of wilderness singletrack overgrown with bushes. Said bushes were sopping wet from the last thunderstorm and were getting wetter in the current one, so I was soon soaked and freezing. The road turned out to be uphill and cold. But trail running has a wonderful way of not giving you any other options, so I gutted it out and arrived back at camp cold and soaked just in time for dinner and the third thunderstorm of the day. Flag shown.
With mammoths, caves, and carvings seen, we’d accomplished our big three objectives for the trip. So for our last full day, we headed up to Sylvan Lake (which I’d scouted yesterday) for a little exploration. The weather was still not great, but we set out anyway and spent a marvelous couple hours circumnavigating the small-but-mighty lake. There were grottos to explore, waterfalls to find, and all manner of explorations to accomplish. It was great!
Craving a bit of civilization and patriotism (it is July 4th, after all), we retired to Custer for pie and lovely small-town festivities before coming back to camp for, you guessed it, another decent thunderstorm.
After dinner, we headed back to Custer for fireworks. The fireworks were great even though the last ten minutes of the show were compressed into about two minutes. The reason for this, it quickly became apparent, was the incoming wall of black mammatus clouds studded with lightning. Only then did the real fireworks begin. Nearly continuous lightning, heavy rain, borderline-scary wind, and ground lit up like daylight. We sheltered in place for half an hour before scurrying back over the plateau to our campsite.
There had been talk of driving home via Devil’s Tower, Deadwood, or other northerly destinations. But we were all craving the comforts of home, so we took the more direct route arriving just in time for… yet another thunderstorm.
The all-star gear award for the trip definitely goes to new blue tarp and it’s various creative pitching options which kept us mostly dry and happy at camp during the innumerable thunderstorms. Without it, we would have eaten a lot of meals in the car or something. Because of this, we were able to make some really great meals. Honorable mention, of course, goes to Clementine, our snug, bomb-proof tent which kept us dry and cozy. Spend the money on a good tent.