We’ve been staying at Ellsworth AFB, one of our ususal stops while we catch up on doctor visits and RV maintenance. The weather has been typical for a South Dakota spring – cool, dreary, and windy. So when we finally had a sunny day forecast, we headed into the Black Hills for a visit.
We traveled for years, never stopping here, because after all, what kind of mountains could South Dakota have? Well, the answer is incredibly beautiful mountains with every type of terrain, from rolling hills and green forests, to towering granite spires. We headed for Custer State Park, a large park that is famous for its Buffalo (Bison) herd. About 1300 Bison roam the park, and this is the time of year to see the 400 or so calves born this spring. This season kicked off with the all to often “pet the Bison incident”, when a woman approached a large bull and stretched out her hand to pet its head. She ended up becoming airborne; first by the Bison, then by a Lifeflight Helicopter. (Picture from Custer Country Emergency Management). Each year, despite posted warnings, videos, and advice from rangers, a number of tourists end up being hospitalized after trying to pet or get a “selfie” with a 2000 pound wild animal that can move faster than a horse. Oh, and has very large, sharp horns.
We started our visit at the one-week old Visitor Center, a new facility with great interpretive exhibits and an amazing wide-screen, high definition theater. The movie is comparable to an IMax with amazing clarity and sound, and is narrated by Kevin Costner, who has been involved in Black Hills projects since his movie “Dances with Wolves”.
After the visitor center, we headed for the Wildlife Loop, an 18-mile paved road that winds through the hills, meadows, and forests. It didn’t take long to find the Bison, and as long as you stay in the car they don’t seem to mind it you pull up close as they graze. This part of the Black Hills is an area of rolling hills that stretch to the horizon, and in the distance we could see small groups of Bison and their young:
Further on, we came around a corner to find this Pronghorn relaxing in the sun. Often mistakenly called an Antelope, the Pronghorn is North America’s fastest land mammal and can sustain speeds of around 60 MPH. They’re truly a beautiful animal, and this guy seemed happy to show off. A bit farther we found one of his harem, a pretty female with unusual horns.
We stopped at a Prairie Dog village and watched as the pups ran around under the watchful eyes of their mothers and while the males stood guard like little Meerkats. Eventually we left the Prairie Dogs and the Wildlife Loop behind, and headed for the Needles Highway. As we drove, the terrain started to change from the rolling hills to granite mountains. Climbing higher, we stopped often to take in the great views of the mountains and valleys.
Soon we entered the “needles”, an area of tall granite spires, sharp curves, and one-at-a-time tunnels. Driving this 14-mile stretch is a real test of will and patience during the summer months when it’s bumper to bumper. Drivers of large pickups and RVs often fail to read the signs, and when one of them realizes they can’t get through the tunnel it creates chaos as they try to turn around in the middle of a frenzy of cars lined up to get through the tunnel and parked helter-skelter. The tunnels are narrow enough that even smaller cars have to be careful not to scrape their sides; a large SUV can barely fit without leaving its mirrors behind. Finally passing through the last tunnel, the challenges aren’t over – the switchbacks continue on:
We spent most of two summers exploring the Black Hills while volunteering in Spearfish but didn’t scratch the surface of all there is to see and do. And this is a place that you can live the tourist mode by visiting all of the commercial sites, or you can drive the back roads, hike, or fish great trout streams. It’s a magical area, and Rapid City is a great town – so if you haven’t visited, put this on your list!
Finally, we always stop at Sylvan Lake. Another reason for visiting this time of year is that the lake is quiet; during the summer it will be one of the busiest areas in the Black Hills. We’ll be leaving the area soon and heading West, so sign up on our email list or check back, there’s more to come!