Day 23: Faces and Great Places in the Black Hills

The pundits say if you want to see wildlife then be on the road early.  So that’s what we did this morning, by getting on the road before 8:00 AM.  We were heading to Custer State Park and wanted to have the best shot at seeing a bison, as we were resolved not to leave this state until we did.

Our drive took us through the edge of Wind Cave National Park, which, surprise surprise, had a bison herd in the distance.  Score!  We took a couple of photos to make sure to document it in case no others cropped up that day, and moved right along to Custer State Park to drive their Wildlife Loop Road.


The Wildlife Loop Road turned out to be one of the most aptly named stretches of road anywhere, because wildlife abounded and it was heaven for a couple of wildlife enthusiasts such as ourselves.  We saw what we thought originally were a herd of deer, but upon further review turned out to be a group of pronghorn, a first for us.  As we moved down the road we saw mule deer, whitetail deer, prairie dogs, and (ta-da) more bison, and these were much closer to the road than the ones at Wind Cave.  Boy, oh, boy, this was a full day already and it was barely 9:00.

Custer’s Prairie Dogs

We did the full loop and were looking high and low for what are known as the Begging Burros, a group of burros that hang near the road because the park allows feeding them.  Because I knew about them, and because I knew the park sanctioned their feeding, Jim had indulged me the night before with a grocery store stop for a 2-lb bag of carrots to go along with the apples we already had for the burros.  There we were, ready to give them a healthy snack but they were nowhere to be found.  What th….?  Where’d they go?  Do they go to Florida for the winter?  We never did find them, so my new plan is to give Jim a carrot every 200 miles for driving energy.

At long last, Bison!

After we’d spent a while in Custer, which was just a first rate, top notch, Grade A park and we give it four enthusiastic thumbs –up, our sights were set on driving the Needles Scenic Highway, which is a route many experts recommend taking while in the area for its scenic beauty.  We wound our way up to Sylvan Lake to connect with the Needles, made the turn onto it, and…  it was closed.  Hmmm.  So, that’s what R O A D  C L O S E D  I N  W I N T E R means on a map.  Sure, it had snowed a few days prior, and sure, most of the roads we’d been on this morning had been super windy and a little icy, but we thought for sure the Needles Scenic Highway would be opened like all the other super windy and a little icy scenic roads.  It wasn’t.

Well, no worries, we re-routed and buzzed past the Crazy Horse Memorial (but didn’t go onto the site), which is going to be a giant Crazy Horse statue carved into the side of the mountain, ala Mt. Rushmore.  The head of Crazy Horse alone will be 87 feet high (the Mt. Rushmore presidents stand at 60 feet high) and will for sure be impressive but it won’t be finished until 2120.  That’s no typo, it won’t be finished for another 108 years.  I think I’d rather wait to pay the $10 admission until they are finished.

See any presidents through this tunnel?

We breezed through the town of Custer, back-tracked our way east on Hwy 16A, and reached our next scenic drive, the Iron Mountain Road.  The Iron Mountain Road, Custer Wildlife Loop, and the Needles Highway form the trilogy that the Society of American Travel Writers (who?) deemed one of the Top 10 Scenic Drives in America.  We can see why.  The roads (well, who knows about the Needles but we’ll assume) wind through the Black Hills’ most scenic prairies, forests, peaks, and valleys, and Iron Mountain adds one more unique feature:  three short tunnels through rocks, two of which (Tunnels 1 & 3) frame Mt. Rushmore perfectly as you drive through (make sure you’re going south to north, though).  The funny thing was that we’d gone through Tunnel 3 (the first one you come to from the south) and I got out to take a picture of Jim in the car in the tunnel because we were the only ones on the roadway (and they don’t call me Snaps for nothing).  Both of us were completely unaware of Mt. Rushmore being right there until all of a sudden Jim shouted excitedly, “There it is!  There it is!”  Whoa, and there it was, for sure.  How can you miss it?  Well, by turning your back on it to take a picture of a hole in a rock, that’s how.

This one needs no explanation

We completed the Iron Mountain Drive, including the Pigtail Bridges that curly-cue around hairpin turns, and reached Mt. Rushmore a little after noon.  Mt. Rushmore National Memorial gets over 2.5 million visitors annually but today was bitterly cold (albeit sunny) and we were at the monument with about a dozen other people.  Aaaah, that was the frosting on the cupcake.

The entire facility at Mt. Rushmore is very nice and well done.  Parking is close, there is an Avenue of Flags with each state’s flag and date of statehood, there is a wide viewing terrace with plenty of seating, the Lincoln Borglum Museum has great, informative displays, and, of course, the showpiece faces in the mountain are spectacular.  Both Jim and I were blown away by the entire experience and it quickly launched into the Top 5 of this trip and probably Top 10 of things we’ve seen on any trip.  I mean, we’re no Society of American Travel Writers, or anything, but if you haven’t been, go.  Just go.

This one needs no explanation, either

We spent a fair amount of time examining the facility and reading the displays, learning all sorts of interesting facts, such as it took 14 years to build (almost three times longer than originally estimated), cost almost $1 million (twice as much as originally estimated), and was riddled with red tape and political wrangling.  Sounds oddly familiar to how the government operates 85 years later.  But there were many, many people passionately devoted to the project and we could not be more thankful that their grand idea and perseverance prevailed.  It’s stupendous.

Wild Bill & Calamity Jane’s final resting place

Moving on, we decided to bop over to Deadwood, SD, to pay a visit to the gravesides of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, who are buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery.  They were found easily enough (after all, they weren’t moving anywhere) so we said a quick hello and got back into the car, as it was still very chilly and the sun was starting to go down.  We made a quick loop through Deadwood to see all the kitschy named casinos and Wild West feel before popping over to Sturgis for a slow roll through.  To be honest, we don’t have much of an interest in Sturgis, in general, but since we were right there…

Probably not what the Kremlin had in mind…

Sturgis in the rear-view, we pressed on to Rapid City, SD, to put eyes on a large piece of the Berlin Wall they have on display at Memorial Park.  We’ve seen pieces of the Berlin Wall in obscure places (Jim has even peed on a piece of it in the men’s room at the Main Street Station in downtown Las Vegas), and Rapid City was no exception.  There it was, looking much like the others, being a slab of cement, and all.

After all the excitement of the day we decided to stop for a bite to eat in Rapid City before moving on to our overnight location, the Best Western Plains Motel in Wall, SD, home of the famous Wall Drug.  We were pretty pooped, as we’d covered a lot of ground (as usual) and the trip is coming to an end soon.  This is a thought we are both relishing and dreading at the same time, but, as “they” say, all good things…  Who are “they” again?

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