Exploring Black Hills and Plush Valleys
Recently retired and ready to spread their wings, Len and Faith Todd wanted to do more with their time than just wait for the grandkids to stack up. Avid travelers, they purchased a Toy Hauler with the expressed purpose of doing some snowmobiling in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But another motivation waited, unexpressed, in one of their hearts: to Tour Alaska, The trip of a lifetime. They waited three years and then, in late June of 2009, the trip of a lifetime began. Here’s Chapter 3 of their story…
We rolled into the Black Hills on July 5 (day six of our adventure). Nearly a week, and I’ve only worn two of the 12 pairs of shoes I packed! Our three days discovering the Black Hills were a whirlwind of fabled western panoramas. What did we see? Well, to sum it up …
We saw lakes that could double as mirrors snaking through evergreen forests, striated hills spotted with scrub grass rolling toward the horizon, towering granite spires, and skyscraping pine trees. We saw skies that go on forever, bison, elk and bighorn sheep. This is the stuff calendars are made of, and we could reach out and touch all of it!
Monday (day seven), we drove over to Badlands National Park. Unbelievable! We hopped out of the truck and were greeted by a stiff breeze and a 20-degree rise in temperature; mid-90s in the shade. The wind was a lifesaver!
Despite the heat—hey, it’s an adventure—we decided to hike up a trail that was rated, justifiably, as both “steep” and “difficult.” In the Badlands, you can’t rely on handholds to help you navigate a steep incline. The rock may look like stone, but it is a clay texture, very brittle. We learned quickly that, if you try to lean your weight into them, CRACK! Scary. But the view from the top was worth it. Incredible!
The trip back to the campground was through Scenic, South Dakota. Scenic? … Um, not so much. Someone must have a gift for irony. Speaking of misleading names—The Black Hills. Hills? I’m sorry, these are not hills. These are MOUNTAINS!!!
After traveling 30 plus miles down an old dirt road from (not so very) Scenic, we found ourselves at Custer State Park—and in the path of a HUGE wandering buffalo. Yes, I know it’s really a called a bison. Don’t be picky; he didn’t know the difference. He only knew that there were humans invading his road. He looked at us and we looked at him. Even “MacGyver” (Len) was not about to step out of the truck to move this one along. Fortunately, the impromptu game of chicken ended quickly, and we were back on our way. If you are ever driving in this country, I strongly suggest you watch the lead foot. You never know when you might come around a corner and run into (not literally, we hope), a creature that can stare through your windshield and look you in the eye.
If their size isn’t enough to give you pause, here’s a statement about bison from the Custer State Park web site:
A WORD OF CAUTION
Bison can be unpredictable and dangerous.
It’s safest to view them from inside a car.
Hmmm. Do tell.
Shortly after the encounter with tall, dark and hairy we found this amazingly beautiful lakeside restaurant, Legion Lake Lodge, where we had dinner on the patio. The food was great, but even better, wait for it, THEY HAD Wi-Fi! We took advantage of this unexpected encounter with technology to blog a little and send out some e-mails. Wi-Fi in the wilderness often comes at a premium, but it’s worth it to stay connected with folks back home while you’re out on your adventure.
Back at camp, we slept the sleep of the recreationally exhausted and woke up Tuesday ready and raring to hike the Centennial Trail. Not all 111 miles of it, mind you, but we did cover a considerable distance in two hours.
Centennial Trail was named in celebration of South Dakota’s 100th year of statehood. Along the trail you can see remnants of a six-foot-wide trough that once ran nearly the entire length of the trail. Miners used the trough to route water—gold-laden water—down out of the hills.
After a long morning of hiking in the, ahem, hills, the sign advertising the tasting room at the Prairie Berry Winery was a welcome site. Their specialty is the award-winning Red Ass Rhubarb. Not bad, actually, and a welcome way to wet our whistle and clean all that trail dust from our palates.
Refreshed, it was back on Needles Highway and into Custer State Park. This place was incredible. I have never seen such amazing rock formations! If you are reading this, stop right now and put Custer State Park on your MUST SEE list. Seriously. It’s impossible, in words, to do anything but touch on its grandeur. This is definitely something you have to experience to get the full effect. From Custer, it was on to the laser show at the Crazy Horse Monument. Very cool.
On day eight we finally stopped to catch our breath. We spent most of the day getting acclimated to the new campground, Sheridan Lake. I did a (very) little bit of hiking, and Len gave the dirt bike a workout. While he was out tooling around, Len ran across another herd of bighorn sheep and chased them around for a while. I think he was letting off some steam from the last avalanche of bighorns that didn’t want to get out of the road (see chapter 2 for more on that).
While Len was shepherding the bighorns, I was exploring the gorgeous wildflowers—beautiful in ways I have never seen before. The captured wilderness of this “little” section of the American West is truly intoxicating.
I did not want to leave the Black Hills of South Dakota. They are magical, mystical, and downright awe-inspiring!! We will definitely visit again, but there are other enchanted destinations yet to come on this trip.
So, after a well-deserved day of rest, we headed off into the setting sun toward our next adventure. BRV
For more information on campsites and places to eat in the area, click here to read Camps and Roadside Eats.