South Dakota

May 1

Today, as we started making our way north. We visited Agate Fossil Beds National Monument where Miocene Epoch fossils were found in the early 1900’s. We learned about the beardog, North American rhino, and other extinct animals from the very cool diorama inside the visitor center.

Alan and I hiked the Daemonelix Trail, a one-mile trail up to the top of a butte. Here we saw several well-preserved daemonelix, also called the devil’s corkscrew. These are the fossilized tunnels and dens of the extinct Palaeocastor, a precursor to the modern beaver. Other items of interest along the trail was a bright rust-colored lichen on many of the rocks and boulders, and a funny pocket gopher digging a hole in the trail. Although there were warning signs throughout the monument and trails, we saw no rattlesnakes.

Since it wasn’t too far out of our way, we decided to visit Toadstool National Geological Park. We took an exit on a dirt road but it was terribly washboarded. With at least eleven miles to go, we called it quits and got back on the paved roads. It just wasn’t worth the “health” of our RV.

We had a picnic lunch at a nice little rest stop in the middle of nowhere. The sun was hot but the shade was comfortably cool. 

Arriving at Game Lodge Campground in Custer State Park we relaxed, but only for a little while before driving the Wildlife Loop. We saw deer, bison, prairie dogs, red squirrel, mountain bluebird, and some bighorn sheep. Welcome to Custer State Park!!

May 2

Early this morning we drove to Wind Cave National Park to get a stamp in the book and a picture of the park sign with Aardi. We have been here before and taken a tour of the cave, but we forgot to get our picture and stamp. From there we drove west to Jewel Cave National Monument. We could into go into the cave however, because the 50 year-old elevators were being replaced. Instead we hiked the ¼ mile Roof Trail.

Later, in the town of Custer, we enjoyed bison burgers at Dakota Cowboy. Afterwards we took care of laundry and I cleaned up the RV a little bit while we waited. Then we went back to camp for a break, dinner, another tour of the Wildlife Loop, and showers. On the Wildlife Loop we stopped and watched a herd of bison running (stampeding?) From the hills into the valley below. We also saw plenty of pronghorn, white tail deer, wild donkeys, and some sharptail grouse. 

May 3

We drove to Rapid City to pick up a rental car, stopping by Walmart for groceries along the way. Since we were still quite early we decided too see Art Alley in downtown Rapid city. We parked and walked to the alley, but the town was doing trash removal – and there are a lot of bins down the alley, so we popped into Talley’s Silver Spoon and had a bagel to kill some time.

“Art Alley, located between 6th and 7th, and Main and Saint Joseph Streets in Rapid City, emerged as an organic, community gallery in 2003. In the beginning artists hung largely canvas artworks on the walls, and over time, evolved to painting directly on the walls. A group of passionate artists and community members worked with city officials to nurture this organic art form, and Art Alley was born.” []

There were some very creative works in the alley, some are obviously by the same artist. We walked the length of the alley and I took pictures of just about all of it.

On the corners of Rapid City’s downtown streets were bronze Statues of various presidents. We saw Carter, Reagan, Jackson, Kennedy and Clinton. 

Because both the Needles Hwy. and Iron Mountain Road have short, narrow tunnels we picked up a rental car from Black Hills Rentals in Rapid City for three days. This would allow us greater freedom on these narrow and tight roads in the mountains. Once we had the rental, I drove it, and Alan drove the RV, back to the campground to drop off the van and set it up as our home base.

We headed up to The Needles but stopped first for a picnic lunch at the Hole in the Wall picnic area first. There was still some snow along the rock face, and the stream was partly frozen, but it wasn’t so cold that we were uncomfortable sitting at one of a few picnic tables. While we ate our sandwiches it started to snow. At first just a little bit, then a bit more. It quickly became very cold, so we finished our sandwiches and gave up on the remainder of our little lunch.

Needles Highway is a 14-mile road with spectacular views of pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway.

We drove through both tunnels along the highway (thank goodness for the car!), and just before entering the first tunnel I saw a marmot but missed getting a photo of it. We then went through the needle tunnel and stopped to see the needle rock formation. The highway culminates at Sylvan Lake, so we got out and hiked halfway around the lake while it snowed. 

Back at camp we finished up the day after dinner with another drive on Wildlife Loop. This time we saw pronghorn, bison, white tail deer, and a lone elk.

May 4

Happy Star Wars Day! May the Fourth Be With You! 

Yes, on top of being nature nuts, we’re nerds.

We noticed another camper in our campground that had a Coachmen Crossfit just like ours, but they had a stinky slinky tube mounted on the back of their rig, so we moseyed over and asked about their solution. He was very kind and told us how he did it. Now I have an idea for our rig! 

Today we drove the Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore. We went through three tunnels, two of which framed Mount Rushmore in the distance. Stopping at Norbeck Overlook provided us with an even nicer view of the monument.

We took the rest of the twisting Iron Mountian Road down to the monument and noted a LOT of construction going on. The parking lots hadn’t changed, but the entry was being re-worked with lots of cement. The monument always impresses. With Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln looking out across our great land. We didn’t feel like hiking, so we watched a pair of mountain goats from afar, and a ground squirrel near the visitor center before leaving. 

For lunch we stopped in the nearby tourist town of Keystone for pizza at Boss Pizza & Chicken. The Stella’s Garlic Combo was great, and provided us with plenty of leftovers.

Continuing on past Keystone we visited the Cosmos Mystery Area. The claim is that the magnetic pull of the earth is concentrated here and that the laws of nature seem to have gone completely off the rails. And indeed it seems to be true at this location. We took the tour and had a weird and fascinating time. But honestly? Trust science.

Further along the road toward Rapid City, we stopped to hike the 2 mile, 100 foot elevation gain, Stratobowl Rim Trail

“The Stratobowl is a compact natural depression within the limits of Black Hills National Forest… In 1934–1935 it housed a stratospheric balloon launch site, initially known as Stratocamp, sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the United States Army Air Corps.” [Wikipedia] 

The hike tested our flagging stamina, but we were rewarded with a pretty nice view of the Stratobowl.

After gassing up the car we went back to camp.

May 5

I had read about the beauty of our next sightseeing adventure, so this morning we drove north to Spearfish Canyon.

The canyon is 14 miles long and is wide with high trees speckling the stone walls, and a river that runs the length of it. There are several easily accessible waterfalls, and I photographed all but one. Bridal Veil Falls was right alongside the road and made for an easy first shoot. Devil’s Bathtub was an old natural looking lock that spilled over into a short falls. Spearfish Falls looked to be very nice from above, but it started to rain, so we played it safe and made our way down the road to Roughlock Falls. This was by far the prettiest set of waterfalls I have seen in a long time. The upper falls were a graceful cascade into a pool of water with moss covering the rocks of the lower falls over which cascaded the water from the falls. The whole scene took our breath away. As I took a few pictures it started to snow, which I didn’t let deter me until it rained and I was forced to stop shooting. We thought we would ride the weather out by eating our lunch in the car, but Mother Nature had other ideas and sent more snow and sleet. 

Putting Spearfish behind us we headed up to Deadwood to see what the old western town had to offer. Turns out it wasn’t much as far as we were concerned. It is a tourist (trap) mecca. I could see that those who might be in love with the old west and its lore might be enamored by the town, but we just don’t fall into that category. I took a couple of pictures with my phone and we drove south to Custer for some pie from The Purple Pie Place.

Back at camp we took a walk around the grounds of the Visitor Center, then had nachos for dinner. Afterward Alan took off on his own for another Wildlife Loop drive. He reported seeing more than a dozen elk, and at least 40 deer. I stayed back in the RV and had some quiet time with some chamomile tea and a book.

May 6 

In the morning we drove to Rapid City to picked up some groceries, and have a nice hot breakfast at IHOP before returning the rental car.

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site was only 75 miles away from Rapid City, so we made the drive out there and checked in at the visitor center and the #01 silo site there. We found out you needed a scheduled tour ticket to get into the silo site, so we left that missile silo behind and made our way out towards Badlands National Park, but not before stopping to get a picture of the Giant Prairie Dog Statue! 

Giant Prairie Dog Statue, and a little guy (bottom).

Having been to Badlands National Park before, we simply drove the scenic drive. 

From Badlands we drove to missile site #09 where the site provides a phone number for a narration about the history of the silo. Here we could see a decommissioned missile in the underground silo and listen to a narration about the silo and its history on my phone. It is a surreal experience, and the history, while fascinating, is also sad when you think about how close we came to annihilation.

On the way back to camp we stopped at the infamous Wall Drug and had bison hot dogs for lunch.

In the evening we went on one final tour of Wildlife Loop and it paid off in spades. We saw no less than two dozen deer, the usual assortment of bison, and well over 75 elk throughout the loop.

Since the skies were finally clear, after dinner I tried to get some star trails. This is at least a two hour process. Unfortunately my shoot was interrupted by not one, but two streams of Starlink satellites crossing through my shots. 

Since the star trails were a bust, a few hours later we drove out to Legion Lake where at least I managed some nice Milky Way shots.

Campground: Game Lodge Campground at Custer State Park is definitely at the top and on our repeat list. The sites are (mostly) level, it was quiet after hours, the bathrooms were clean and the showers, while timed, were hot and strong. The location is perfect, with Wildlife Loop just down the road. The town of Custer is 20-25 minutes away, Rapid City is 45 minutes away, and other sightseeing locations are not much farther.