A Step Back into the Old West ~ Black Hills, SD

Blogging has taken a back seat to family matters recently but I felt I needed to write a belated post about some breathtaking country in South Dakota before our time there becomes a distant memory for me.

Cathedral Spires in the Black Hills

Cathedral Spires in the Black Hills

The Black Hills, spanning 1.2 million acres, are a geologically complex land, an island oasis floating above a sea of prairie. The roadways traversing these densely forested slopes are listed among National Geographic’s Drives of a Lifetime.  Her grassy plains, soaring granite cliffs, and plunging gorges draw you into an intricate mural.  Beneath these pine-covered hills lie an underground labyrinth of calcite crystals and hidden caverns, mostly “wild”, only explored by professional spelunkers and geologists.

The whispers of the Old West are carried on the wind here, where Lewis and Clark passed through; Crazy Horse fought for freedom; and the Gold Rush of 1876 created a miners’ camp known as Deadwood, luring the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

We focused our time in the southern hills.  Here are a few stops that we found noteworthy:

1)  Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Towering granite splendor - Mt. Rushmore National Memorial

Towering granite splendor – Mt. Rushmore National Memorial

A hurried trip years ago brought us back here for further exploration.  On this visit we joined an interpretive ranger who took us through the  creative process for this massive memorial.

Gutzon Borglum, the same sculptor who designed the intricate Confederate carvings depicted on Stone Mountain in Georgia, was brought in to design Mt. Rushmore.  Borglum’s vision, a memorial to the history of America, brought four US Presidents to life on a granite cliff side – George Washington, our 1st President, whose image is as tall as a 6-story building, Thomas Jefferson (#3), Theodore Roosevelt (#26), and Abraham Lincoln (#16).

In 1927, with over 400 workers scaling this massive granite slab, dynamiting and chiseling gave way to Borglum’s vision, ending with his death 14 years later, his dream not quite fully realized, but his contribution immeasurably felt.

 2)  Jewel Cave National Monument
Bacon anyone?

Bacon anyone?

Named for its glittering calcite crystal walls and with 166 miles of mapped passages, Jewel Cave is the 3rd-longest cave system in the world, continuing to grow at a rate of 3 miles per year. Only 3-5% of this cave has been explored so no telling how vast it truly is.  We enjoyed our tour but felt this cave did not quite rival Carlsbad, Mammoth or Kartchner Caverns.

Anyone interesting in slithering through tight spaces on their belly should consider taking one of their Wild Cave Tours – not something this claustrophobic girl would contemplate.

3)  Wind Cave National Park
A stubborn beast takes the high road.

A stubborn beast takes the high road.

This is the first cave to be given National Park status anywhere in the world.  Its proximity to Jewel Cave has some believing that one day there will be a connecting passage discovered between the two.

Wind Cave is a land of contrasts, a mystical world of hidden caverns and hiking trails meandering through forests and plains.  We chose to play in the sun and hiked the Centennial/Lookout Point Trail Loop, 5 miles through wide-open plains and deeply shrouded, rocky canyons.

It is here where we learned to gently prod a one-ton bull bison up a steep, rocky trail ahead of us.  With nothing but an abrupt chasm on one side and heavily forested cliffs on the other, going around this beast wasn’t an option, nor were we keen to turn back.  Photography was set aside to keep nearby trees in view, lest this big fella grow tired of our nudging and show us his mettle.  At the top of the ridge we said our goodbyes as he chose to continue on the high road. :)

4)  Custer State Park

This was the crown jewel of our trip through the Black Hills, with its abundant hiking, wildlife, and diverse scenery.  We understand why it was ranked as one of the top 10 state parks this year by Fodor’s.

Custer State Park boasts several driving tours that display the uniqueness of this park and is the reason we feel it rivals many a national park.  For wildlife viewing, take the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road and meet the famous bison herd.  Nearly 1300 if these massive beasts roam the park and each September, when there’s a crispness in the air and the leaves turn garnet and gold, it’s Buffalo Roundup time.   Visitors come to watch this thundering herd of bison being driven out of the hills by cowboys and cowgirls on horseback.  They are corralled, branded, tested, and some auctioned off to keep the herd at a healthy, stable population.

You may need nerves of steel to tackle narrow 17-mile Iron Mountain Road, boasting 314 curves and 14 switchbacks.  What draws visitors here are the three tunnels that all frame Mt. Rushmore as you look in your rear-view mirror.

Dubbed Needles Highway for the slender granite spires that line this roadway, the hairpin turns and narrow granite tunnels will force you to slow down to soak in the magnificent surroundings.  Many rock climbers (aka adrenaline junkies) flock to this section of Custer State Park for endless opportunities to get high.

And if your feet are begging to get back on solid ground, there are any number of exciting hiking trails to tax legs and lungs.  We chose to hike up to the summit of Harney Peak, highest peak in South Dakota, rising 7,242 feet above the surrounding terrain.  A stately old fire tower graces the summit and the views are breathtaking, weather permitting.

Tucked behind sparkling Sylvan Lake is a fascinating little hike that found us boulder hopping down into a plunging gorge and crossing a flowing creek so many times I lost count.  The Sunday Gulch Trail, only 3 miles in length, offers up some of the most unique landscape within Custer State Park.

Of course, after feeding the spirit the body begs for nourishment so a stop in the little town of Custer is highly recommended, where some of the best bison burgers can be found at Black Hills Burger and Buns Co., and a palette-pleasing flight of microbrews will call your name at Bitter Ester’s Brewhouse.

The Black Hills of South Dakota, sprawling land of intense diversity, begs to be savored, not rushed. We have left her northern hills of Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, and Sturgis for another visit.

Sacred Space or Climbing Mecca ~ Devils Tower National Monument, WY

Legend of Devils Tower ~ photo credit Google

Legend of Devils Tower ~ photo credit Google

According to the Lakota tribe, while at play, a group of young girls were chased by giant bears. Their escape was to climb atop a rock and pray to the Great Spirit to save them.The Great Spirit heard their pleas and the rock rose to the heavens, keeping the young girls safe from attack.  Deep claw marks in the sides of the rock evidence the ursine’s attempts to reach the girls. These are the marks which appear today on the sides of Devils Tower.  When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the star constellation Pleiades.

There are things in the natural world that induce a stillness of spirit, a sense of wonder. For me, Devils Tower is one of those things.  President Theodore Roosevelt must have felt this same sense of awe as he gazed upwards at this rocky sentinel rising 1267 feet above the surrounding landscape, as this was to be his choice for the first national monument on September 24, 1906.  With a one-mile circumference, it is a sight to behold.

The name “Bear’s Lodge” given to this stately tower by Native Americans became woefully mistranslated by a U.S. Army interpreter to that of “Bad Man’s Tower”, which then became Devils Tower.  Northern Plains Indians have objected to this name and wish to see it changed to Bear Lodge National Historic Landmark but they have been met by local opposition, fearing a name change would affect tourism.

There is an ongoing debate about how this massive tower was formed.  Most geologists agree that Devils Tower was formed by the forceful passage of molten material between other rock formations but they can’t agree whether this magma reached the earth’s surface or how that process took place.  What is known is that this material cooled and crystallized, forming hexagonal (4 to 7-sided) columns separated by vertical fissures, compatible to columns found at Devil’s Postpile National Monument in California, but those at Devils Tower are much larger.  These are the tallest and widest columns in the world, some more than 600 feet tall and 10-20 feet wide.

Many ask, “should this be a sacred tower, a climbing mecca, or is there room for both?” It has long been held as sacred ground by over 20 Native American tribes but has also been sought as an international climbing destination since its first ascent on July 4, 1893.  Out of respect for Native American beliefs, the National Park Service has asked climbers to refrain from climbing the tower during the month of June, when many tribes gather here for prayer, sun dance, sweat lodge ceremonies, and vision quests.

With wind blowing through the pines, the sun's final light sets the tower aglow.

With wind blowing through the pines, the sun’s final light sets the tower aglow.

Records of the tower climbs have been kept since that first ascent by William Rogers and Willard Ripley in 1893, using a wooden ladder to climb the first 350 feet.  Two years later Mrs. Rogers used that same ladder to become the first woman to summit. Remnants of that ladder can still be seen today on the side of Devils Tower.  Annually 5000+ climbers world-wide come to tackle this technically difficult tower and over 220 climbing routes have been established.  Five deaths have resulted from attempting this climb, the most recent being in 2003.  We watched in awe as one climber worked his way up the tower barefoot.

We were content to extol her beauty with our feet planted terra firma. :)

Bizarre, Broken, Bewitching ~ Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Part 2)

“The Badlands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.”  ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Storm clouds build over the Little Missouri

Storm clouds build over the Little Missouri

The Badlands story, of which Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a part, began over 65 million years ago.  While the Rocky Mountains were rising from the earth, bucking and writhing to claim their place in the landscape, massive amounts of sediments were being carried east on the wind and in the water, creating this desolate mural.  Savagely erupting volcanoes in surrounding states were belching ash to combine with the Rocky Mountain sediments.  The badlands are the result of layers of sandstone, mudstone, siltstone, and bentonite clay air-brushed into unusual rock formations and vivid striated buttes.

This national park was once on the eastern edge of a swamp and over time these sediments compressed and broke down, causing chemical changes that resulted in the formation of lignite, a soft coal that Teddy Roosevelt shoveled into his stove to heat his home.  In these striated buttes, lignite can still be seen.  Lightning strikes and fires cause the lignite to smolder, which in many cases can continue underground for years. The hardened red-brick caps, known as “scoria”, seen on many rock formations, come from the oxidation of iron released from the burning of this coal.  The artistry of time, wind, and erosion have created the landscape we see today, which is constantly being transformed.

The 110 square miles of Theodore Roosevelt National Park cover three distinct areas of Badlands in western North Dakota and the Little Missouri River snakes through all of them.

  • The larger South Unit within the town of Medora, where we are camped
  • The smaller North Unit, ~80 miles north of the South Unit, off Hwy. 85
  • Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch located between the two.  Only cornerstones remain there today.

Both the North and South Units have similar topography and many of the same wildlife, deer, bison, prairie dogs.  The North claims the longhorn steer and bighorn sheep, while the South boasts elk, pronghorn, and feral horses.  I had also read about a phenomenon in the North Unit that Nina had introduced us to while on the coast of Oregon that has enchanted me ever since – concretions.  I knew a trip up north was in my future.

On a rare sunny, rain-free day I pointed the car north on the hunt for longhorn steer and cannonball concretions.  While the steer remained elusive, I found the concretions hiding in the shadows.

I could have gone back south and been happy but I had the day so a couple of hikes and a visit to a prairie dog town seemed in order.  I chose the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail and the Buckhorn Trail, taking me through open prairie, aromatic sagebrush, canyons with unusual rock formations, and a town where only prairie dogs are welcome, as they will let you know if you get too close.

Our visit has been more rain than sun and locals say this part of ND has had a very wet summer.   On one of those cloud-filled mornings I headed out bright and early, hoping to get a hike in before the rains came.  My goal was to tackle part of the Maah Daah Hey, a trail that stretches 97 miles across the National Grassland, connecting all three units of the park.  Over 7 miles of it runs through the South Unit, just a couple of miles from our campground and it’s a great trail for hiking and mountain biking.  Plans were thwarted when I got to the Little Missouri, a necessary water crossing I thought would be easy.  Given the recent rains we have had, no way was the river allowing me passage. :(

On a rare rain-free evening I ventured into the park hoping to catch a memorable sunset on top of Buck Hill, noted for its dramatic evening views. Although the sunset didn’t wow me, what I spotted around a curve in the road did…the feral horses!

And although the sunset wasn’t spectacular, it was a nice ending to my stay at Theodore Roosevelt NP.

 

 

Rugged, Desolate Beauty ~ Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Part 1)

“There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm.”  ~  Theodore Roosevelt

Clouds dance across the Painted Canyon, first stop in the park off Hwy. 94

Clouds dance across the Painted Canyon, first stop in the park off Hwy. 94

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, named after our 26th President of the same name, lies in western North Dakota.  Part of Teddy’s spirit may still roam here, given his love for this land, for it was his time spent here that played an instrumental role in his development of conservation policies that remain in place today.

The Lakota people were the first to call this territory the “badlands” due to lack of water, extreme temperatures, and the rugged terrain.  Teddy Roosevelt first came to the North Dakota Badlands in September 1883 to hunt bison and was enchanted by its desolate, melancholy beauty.  It was the death of his beloved wife Alice Lee, due to complications from childbirth, and mother Mittie, who succumbed to typhoid fever, both in the same house, on the same day, February 14, 1884, hours apart, that brought Roosevelt back to these lands, heartbroken and seeking nature’s healing powers.

Bison freely roam these plains.

Bison freely roam these plains.

We entered the gateway town of Medora on a hot, muggy day so we chose the 36-mile scenic drive of the South Unit over hiking that first afternoon.  After spending much time in similar parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, this park (imho) paled in comparison.  But the expression “don’t judge a book by its cover” applies here, as in digging a little deeper I have found some hidden gems.  But before I get to the good stuff, I’ll share a bit of a saga that’s been going on behind the scenes here.

Terry taking in the views.

Terry taking in the views.

Unfortunately the day of our arrival we learned just how much Terry’s father’s health had deteriorated over the past few days.  We both felt it imperative that Terry head to Ohio now instead of wait until the 25th of this month as he had planned.  What to do about an airport and flight was the next question, as we are in the middle of nowhere. The closest “big” town to us is Dickinson, 40 miles away, but surprisingly learned they have an airport another 7 miles outside of town.  So with flight booked and bags packed, we headed for the airport the next day, a very rainy day at that.

With Terry safely at the airport, I headed back to the park.  As I approached Dickinson a message scrolled across my dashboard stating STOP SAFELY NOW, and within seconds the truck decided to stop me.  There I sat in the driving rain blocking traffic, which never makes for happy drivers. With Terry at the airport contacting Ford and a tow service, I directed traffic while drivers scowled at me through rain-streaked windows.

Fast forward and an easy fix soon became anything but as the sensor broke while being removed so now we are awaiting parts and dealing with a warranty company that has been less than cooperative.

Many hours later, in a rental car headed back to the park, the skies opened and I found myself wishing for an ark.  Suffice to say the drive back at 40 mph was the longest 1.5 hours I have spent in some time.  I later learned that we had received 6-8″ of rain in a matter of two hours, which is probably why I felt I floated home most of the way.  But Terry is where he needs to be and I arrived safely.

The silver lining in this ongoing saga was a visit from dear Colorado friends Stan and Marilyn.  For two days we enjoyed great conversation, lots of laughs, and a lovely hike. They agreed to a hike I really wanted to do in the remote northwest corner of the south unit, the Petrified Forest Loop Trail. I was determined to hike it solo or with friends but agreed that it is probably best done with others, especially if the solo woman is somewhat directionally challenged. ;)  The petrified forest, hard sandstone spires topped with caprocks, and dodging bison during their rut made for an interesting hike.

We rounded out our time together with a stroll through Medora and a lovely dinner at Theodore’s, which we all highly recommend.   The food was excellent and the company, of course, priceless.  I can’t thank them enough for brightening up my week.  We look forward to seeing them again soon in Colorado.

Next up:  More hiking, prairie dog towns and concretions, my favorite!

A Slow-Growing Monster ~ Devils Lake, ND

One of many ND "prairie potholes", with sprawling Devils Lake in the background

One of many ND “prairie potholes”, with sprawling Devils Lake in the background

When crossing over from Minnesota to North Dakota we envisioned wide-open plains but what greeted us instead was water, everywhere.  I’m certain parts of the state look more like the wheat fields we had passed, but in this northeastern section of North Dakota, shallow wetlands known as “prairie potholes” dotted the fields, and the slow-growing monster known as Devils Lake shimmered in the distance.

This was once Sioux territory and they called this lake mni wak’áη chant.  Broken down into separate words the translation of “Bad Spirit Lake” was converted to Devils Lake by early Europeans.  For the Sioux, the word ‘bad’ referred to the salinity of the water, making it unfit to drink and ‘spirit’ the mirages they often saw across the water.

Aerial view of Devils Lake - photo credit Google

Aerial view of Devils Lake – photo credit Google

Devils Lake is the largest “natural” body of water in North Dakota and is a closed lake, meaning it has no outlet to river systems.  It is completely dependent upon precipitation, evaporation, and seepage to contain its size and is much higher in salinity than other lakes due to its closed nature.  Over the past 20 years it has nearly quadrupled in size, swallowing up thousands of acres of land, millions of trees, hundreds of buildings, and at least two towns in its path.

We have read that Devils Lake is within four feet of flowing into the nearby Sheyenne River.  Due to its salinity, the potential environmental impact of water being diverted away from the lake has officials and surrounding communities in a quandary.  No other place in America has faced this kind of dilemma other than the Great Salt Lake, which I believe was resolved when Utah experienced a drought.

Nice big sites at Grahams Island

Nice big sites at Grahams Island

We recently spent a few days at Grahams Island State Park, surrounded by Devils Lake. The state park was lovely and reminded us of a well-manicured city park, with sites in our section well-spaced and filled with plenty of mature shade trees.  Don’t come to the park expecting lots of hiking or biking trails, although I did venture out on my bike across the causeway a time or two.  This park is better experienced sitting under an oak tree reading a good book or looking out over the lake.  Better yet, if you are a fisherman, Devils Lake is known as the perch capital of the world, although campers were catching their limit of walleye the few days we were there.

Another discovery made during our visit was that of vast fields of golden sunflowers bowing in homage to the sun.  I learned that sunflowers are primarily grown in the Dakotas, with 50% of the U.S. production in North Dakota.  These beauties are grown for oilseed, sunflower seeds for snacks and bird food, and the fields stretched on for miles.

The very best part of our stay at Grahams Island was having friends Pam and John join us and true to form, we found a couple of opportunities to enjoy a meal together, once at our place, once at theirs.  Pam’s seafood paella rocked!

Hmm, wonder what these two guys find so funny?

Hmm, wonder what these two guys find so funny?

Good food, good friends and lots of laughter – the simple pleasures of life.  We look forward to meeting up again with them this winter, which is just about the best part of this full-time lifestyle, finding like-minded folks on the road. :)