It was June of 2011 that we became official residents of South Dakota and now we finally returned to our new home state. The drive from Matt and Adams’ house to Custer State Park in the Black Hills was too far for a one day drive, so we had planned to stop enroute. At first we had discussed staying at an RV park near Chamberlain, SD, but as we refined our plans we decided to stay overnight in Badlands National Park. It was going to be a quick visit but we made the most of it. The campsites are essentially wide spots in the road and we would not call them “big rig friendly” as the spots are not very long. When you have a combined length of 55 feet for truck and trailer, that is a big factor.
We stopped at the visitors center (always a good source of local information) and asked where we should go to see the most wildlife. The visitor center had lots of information about the park, its history and topography. There are also several Ranger-led activities available. The volunteer told us if we were driving to go along the Sagecreek Rim Road, and if we were on foot to hike a short stretch of the Castle Trail. As there was still daylight, we drove to the Sagecreek Rim Road where we saw bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and pronghorn antelope. The views were awesome! As we drove back to the campground, the setting sun lit up the cliff faces, highlighting the color of the different layers of rock.
The next morning we hiked a portion of the Castle Trail. Hiking in the Badlands is an entirely different experience than anywhere else we have been. It has a stark beauty, rather than lust forest. In many places the rocks rose above us in amazing beauty, and the views of the valley areas were beyond description. It was like walking on the surface of the moon, the landscape was so barren. On much of the trail the surface was so hard we didn’t even leave footprints.
From the Badlands it was a fairly short drive to Custer State Park in the Black Hills. You have to be careful in your planning how you want to enter Custer State Park. If you travel south on US-16A from Rapid City you will have to pass through three one-lane tunnels of which the tallest has a clearance of only 12′ 9″ and there is no bypass for one of them. Because of this we traveled via SD-36. There are also one-lane tunnels on SD-87 within the park that were a tight fit for our truck without the trailer. Good route planning is essential.
Custer State Park is a nice place to camp and there are many things to do in the area. Obviously Mount Rushmore is high on the list of places to see. The park also offers many Ranger-led programs.
We had visited Mount Rushmore about five years ago and Bob wanted to visit it again. He thinks that anyone visiting the Memorial should take the Ranger-led tour of the Memorial This leads you along a trail that gives you the best view of each of the Presidents. The Ranger gives you some history in the creation of that part of the Memorial and why the sculptor choose that President. You can also see the sculptor’s, Gutzon Borglum, studio. The museum has displays about each of the Presidents and the process of constructing the Memorial.
Pat selected what was one of the best hikes we have been on – Harney Peak. This is the highest mountain east of the Rockies at 7,242 feet. The path is well defined and offers some spectacular views along the trail; however, nothing rivals the view from the peak. There is an old stone fire tower that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The tower was abandoned as a fire tower years ago, but is a wonderful destiny for a hike. The tower is even more impressive when you understand that every brick, bag of cement and sand, and piece of steel was brought up on someone’s back!
We also visited the Crazy Horse Memorial. This is a tremendous undertaking that we wonder if it will ever be completed. The original sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, has died and now his wife and most of his ten children are continuing the work. The face of Crazy Horse is the largest part that is completed and it is four times larger than any of the faces on Mount Rushmore. The visitor center has many displays by local Indian tribes as well as descriptions of the construction.
One evening we took a tour led by a park naturalist to view the wildlife in the park. Custer State Park is proud of its bison herd. The park has worked hard to develop the herd and manages it to insure that the size of the herd does not exceed the park’s ability to sustain it. There is an annual bison round-up and auction of bison to reduce the herd. Our naturalist mentioned that ranchers often buy Custer Park bison to improve the quality of their herd.
The day before we left, we drove to Box Elder to “visit our mailbox” and pick up our mail. America’s Mailbox is our mail forwarding service and is located in Box Elder, just east of Rapid City.
On August 17th, we headed west for the Grand Teton National Park.