Road Tripping Across South Dakota

Spoiler Alert: We made it home safe. On August 14th, after beginning our trip on June 24th, we arrived back at our home on the northwest side of Chicago. Before coming home we made a couple of stops that included meeting our new niece/ cousin (welcome to the world Willow, we love you already!) and hanging out with Mor Mor. So I know what you are thinking, did Noel get to 40 Cool Things? And did Corey really go on 40 hikes? Well, you are just going to have to keep checking in to find out.

View from Mount Harney

For the next three cool spots, I direct you to Custer State Park. With over 30,000 acres of semi-wilderness, Custer State Park definitely resembles a National Park. It has the lakes, the mountains, and the micro weather systems (a tornado reportedly landed less than thirty miles away from us on our final, quiet and dry night in the park). But it’s actually a state park so you have things like “begging burros” and a bison herd that gets thinned out each fall. There are also no bears here so you can leave out your cooler which we found to be a refreshing change. For us though the star attraction has to be Mount Harney (Cool Stop #34).

At Fire Tower

Coming in at over 7,000 feet, Mount Harney is the highest mountain east of the Rockies and the first mountain Corey and I hiked up together. A couple of years ago Corey and Henna hung out at Sylvan Lake while I hiked solo up Little Devil’s Tower (which rises opposite Harney’s peak). Since then Corey has had a strong urge to come back and summit the peak (she also had a fond memory of a hot dog served up at the cafeteria which did not at all live up to her recollection). Well, despite some ping pong size hail on the way up, we made it to the top. And there, delicately perched like a nest, was the CCC built Fire Tower which offered a basement, killer views of the needle-like mountain, and an attic of sorts which required climbing up a ladder. The clouds cleared and we spent some time just hanging out and enjoying the view before heading down. And then, with about a mile and half to go before reaching our car, the heavens opened up and pelted us with a very persistent and painful hail.

Henna collecting trail hail

Henna collecting trail hail

Cool Spot #35 is the Wildlife Loop. Along this eighteen mile road are the previously mentioned “begging burros” (which took visitors to Harney’s Peak up until the 1930 when the rides were discontinued and the burros left to fend for themselves), antelope, about 1,500 bison, nowhere near as many bighorn sheep, and a lot of mule and white tail deer. The whole ride is kind of like a fake safari ride only a lot cooler. Corey swears that bison are the ugliest, nastiest animals she has ever seen. Henna and I disagree and found the calves especially endearing. Our new bobble head bison agreed with us.

Mother and daughter

Begging Burros

The other scenic highway worthy of being titled a cool spot is Iron Mountain Road (Cool Spot #36). First conceptualized by former South Dakota governor Peter Norbeck (who also is responsible for setting aside land for Custer State Park), this road links the state park with Mount Rushmore. A slow road, it twists like a pretzel and offers up a different view of the presidents at each turn. The many one lane bridges also force a sort of patient negotiation between the tourists whom are leaving and those who are coming to the Black Hills. We were among those leaving and, with the last of the mountains seen from our rear view mirror, we headed east on the interstate. Noel 8/15/13

Along the Iron Highway

Stalker burros, bison road blocks, and granite presidents

I did not intend this trip to be a grand tour of KOAs, but that is what the last week has become.  A couple of factors:  1)  Henna’s profound love of swimming and her new found underwater diving skills and 2) Our love of cheap, fun places that allow us to camp.  Yesterday’s KOA (in Custer, SD) was perfect.  It had a  lot of tenters, families, and trees.  Besides having a pool, they also offered crafts for the kids and Henna painted a glass butterfly with a kindly older work camper.  Today, I am about 35 miles north of Custer at the Rapid City KOA which is off of I90, is filled with some type of camp group which descended on the pool just before closing as well as punkish looking teens (and a few nice families).  But the pool is nice and we had pizza delivered to us from a nearby place. 

Today we did a figure eight through Custer State Park.  13 years ago, Corey and I camped for the first time and had our first good hike in the Black Hills area.  My first night camping was memorable by the way, for me cutting my thumb pretty good while opening a can of tuna.  We could not get a fire going and I remember some guy who worked at the campground watching my efforts and saying, “it will catch, don’t worry” and walking away.  I do not remember if it ever catched.  The hike was Harney Peak which I always tell people is the highest mountain east of the Mississippi.  A couple of days ago I told that to Corey and she said “Harney Peak is not east of the Mississippi.”  A quick look at the map confirmed this.  So maybe it is the highest mountain east of the Rockies?  At 7200′ it is tall, but I am not sure that it is taller than the presidential mountains in New Hampshire.    One thing we can all agree on is that it is tall.  We told Henna there was a castle at the top of the mountain (there is a stone CCC firewatch tower at the top) and that she could eat as much candy as she wanted while hiking.  Yesterday she said she would do it but today she said no way. 

So we drove through Custer State Park  and were awed by how cool this park really is  After Yellowstone, Waterton, etc. we thought this would pale in comparison.  Not at all.  There are meadows, funky rock formations, windy roads that rival taller mountain passes, narrow tunnels that allow only one lane of traffic, a herd of bison that, toward the end of the day, surrounded traffic and caused our hearts to quicken as they walked toward the car before suddenly veering away.  While in a bison jam, a park ranger passed us going the other way and we asked if bison ever charge cars (I did this thinking the answer would comfort us).  He said, “yeah, all the time” and then drove off.  Meanwhile the bison are in front, behind, to the left, and to the right of us.  We can smell and hear them grunt too.  A couple of cars in front of us the drover froze up and we were stuck for a good ten minutes before being able to proceed. 

The burros are a different matter.  Quick review, in WY you can walk directly on dinosaur tracks and are encouraged to take any fossils you find.  At Jewel Cave I was reprimanded for holding an acorn in the visitor center.  At Custer State Park, you are not allowed to feed wildlike “except fot the burros…. we just want you to feed them something good like carrots” (the lady at the entrance gate).  So we fed them.  We also got of the car and petted them.  And then we walked in a great meadow toward a herd of burros.  Prarie dogs sent off their alarm and we watched for burro pooh and snakes in the grass (we found a lot of the first and none of the second).

Before seeing the bison and burros, but after first entering the park we took Iron Mountain Road which leads to Mount Rushmore.  The road was designed to give several cool views of the monument.  Quick fact:  Mount Rushmore is incomplete.  Congress cut off funding in 1941 (we were on the verge of WWII) and Lincoln is incomplete as well as some of the details of the other presidents.  There also was a big do-over due to unforseen cracking which left several imperfections to the left of Washington.

After Mount Rushmore but before the bisons and burros we parked at Lake Sylvian.  Lake Sylvian is lovely and also is the site of a trail head for Harney Peak.  How convenient.  The three of us started on the trail with the understanding we would only go as far as Henna wanted.  Henna wanted to go about 50 yards.  Corey graciously said I could continue for a bit and her and Henna went swimming in the lake.  I continued on the trail until I reached a spur leading to Little Devil’s Tower.  I figured that would be a logical turn around point and began walking to the tower.  What I did not realize, was that the trail led to the top of the little tower, not a view of.  About a third of a way up that spur I came across a vantage point that offered awesome views of the hills (they did look black from  there).  I did not have any way to record this.  There was a family at the same point and I decided to ask a big favor: would they e-mail me a picture of that view.  This request led to fun conversations and companionship the rest of the way up.  At the time of the request, I did not realize that they were actually a family of eight.  A very cool eight with the six children ranging from six to maybe their late teens.  They were quick witted (they laughed at my jokes) and very kind to me.  Still, I felt a bit funny hanging out with them, kind of like I was being unfaithfull to Corey and Henna.  The trail, by the way, devolved into spray painted blue diamonds on rocks which led us into gulleys and crevases.  Several points were only wide enough to allow me to walk with one foot directly in front of the other.  The view at the top was stunning with us just a little bit lower than the stone fire tower which we could see across a ravine.  As I was admiring this a little voice inside my head said “you told Corey you would be about an hour and it has been two.”  I came down as fast as I can, once losing the trail and having to backtrack.  I also resorted to throwing my water bottle down ahead of me so that I had both hands free.  When I finally returned to the parking lot, Corey and Henna were happy to see me and not upset in the least.  I felt true gratitude for them being so cool and understanding.

So here we are in Rapid City, two days before we hope to be home.  Since Dan and Liz’s wedding, it has been 34 nights. 21 nights have found us sleaping in a tent.  4 times we stayed in a KOA cabin.  We did 6 hotels and were lucky enough to have Lou host us for three nights.  Our total trip odometer is over 6,500 miles.  It is time to go home, but these have been an awesome 5 weeks.  I will post some pictures, hopefully tomorrow and then again over the next week.