On Thursday of this past week we made a trip up to Custer Park to get together with a host couple there and all of us then drove into Hill City to have lunch at the best restaurant in the Black Hills, the Alpine House. Should you ever visit and spend time in the area this is a place not to be missed with wonderful German food, steaks, and spectacular deserts. We have learned that we get one desert and share it, or eat desert first!
After lunch we made a visit to the museum of the Black Hills Institute. They have an amazing collection of fossils from the dinosaur period. It seems that the Black Hills has been the source of some of the most unique finds anywhere. It is very easy to spend a couple of hours looking around even though the space isn’t large but there is a great deal packed into it.
With the start of the big motorcycle rally in Sturgis nearing, both Custer and Hill City, as well as most other towns in the central to northern black hills are now crawling with motorcycles. While most are pretty good folks, it is very common for the tourists in automobiles to feel uncomfortable with some of the riding done by the more aggressive ones in the groups. The area is mostly made up of scenic but crooked roads and most have pretty restrictive speed limits. It isn’t unusual for the riders to become unhappy with being held up by the drivers of cars and some of them go to lengths to display that displeasure and even harass drivers, particularly if a little slow. If you are not comfortable with them very close to you, riding close behind and passing in bad places, the end of July and early August is not a good time to visit the hills.
Earlier I posted a few pictures from our first visit to the Needles Highway and our experiences there but we now have some new pictures that are truly unique. I believe that I mentioned that tour busses do occasionally squeeze through the tunnels but I now have some pictures of one in the process of this. You need to keep in mind that the tunnel in this picture is only 8 feet, 4 inches wide at the tightest point and about 9 feet at its widest point. This bus did scrape both mirrors at the tightest point and it seems to be what the driver used to tell that he was in the center of the tunnel.
Even though this wasn't one of the largest of luxury busses, it must take nerves of steel to make the transit, and especially so the first time or two. The entry and exit are the easy part as near the center of the trip it squeeses down for a distance of perhaps 30 to 50 feet.
I do believe that if you have any experience driving large vehicles, they are hiring drivers! If you are looking for some seasonal work in the black hills for the summer this just might be what you are looking for.
On Thursday we chose to spend the day touring to our north because our area was predicted to have the hottest day of the year, at 100 degrees! Since the altitude in the far north end of the Black Hills is around 5000 feet and more we thought that might be nicer and that proved to be the case. Tuesday had been our previously hottest day at the mid 90's and the evening followed with a wicked thunderstorm which lasted less than an hour but had very high winds, small hail, and more than 1.2 inches of rain. We thought that we would likely be back before the evening storms so headed out on a beautiful, sunny day.
Our first stop was at Sheridan Lake. This medium sized lake now covers the gold rush townsite of Sheridan and is named for it. It is located to the north of Hill City and along US385. The roads are winding and hilly but easily traversed and the lake has public fishing, boating, and a campground as well as a public marina. It is a very pretty lake with many fishermen.
From there we continued north on US385 and soon approached Pactola Dam & Reservoir. This lake was constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation in the 50's in response to a shortage of water in Rapid City and surrounding area. Today it is also the home to a large federal park and also to a South Dakota state park and is very popular with both boaters and fishermen. There are several really striking views but of particular interest is the island near the day which protrudes sharply out of the waters to a very rocky top. On top of the highest point there is a flagpole with a US flag proudly flying. I asked in the visitor center about it since there is no real place for a boat to land and was told that the owners of the marina got permission to place and maintain that flagpole at his own expense because he just felt that there needed to be one. It even has a solar powered light for nights. It is a very remarkable site to behold. There is a nice visitor center at the east end of the dam structure with a nice size parking lot and also RV parking. They have a scenic overlook and a picnic ground as well.
From here we traveled into Lead which is a mountain mining town that is interesting but small and then to Deadwood where casinos and gambling have invigorated the local economy. We then traveled up to Sturgis, where surprisingly to us; there were very few motorcycles yet, like most of the area has, but lots of activity setting up vendor booths and such for the big biker rally to come in August. It seemed as though the bikers are all gathering outside of Sturgis to suddenly descend when the big day arrives! We then followed a series of canyons back south and returned to Hot Springs, via Custer City.
This has been a busy weekend but like most Sundays, the exodus began pretty early. We did have one open site all weekend but strangely someone paid for it from Thursday through Sunday but never did arrive. That does seem too happen at times and once wonders why since SD parks will refund all but the first night for people if they can’t use their site. It is too bad also as we nearly always turn some folks away on nice weekends. This time we also had four visitors using slots in the equestrian campground which was not in use by horsemen.
Today is also expected to be our warmest day of the year with a high of 940. It is now 3 pm and my thermometer reads 920 so we may well get there. With our humidity at only 25% it really isn’t that bad, especially if you can stay in the shade. The boat ramp has been pretty busy and the traffic has changed from mostly fishermen to mostly water skiers. We cleaned out most of the fire-rings this morning as folks were leaving to get a jump on the week’s maintenance work. Otherwise it has been a pretty lazy day with just watching folks leave and using the computer to check them out. We do have two longer term visitors here and three more due in this evening.
This week we visited Fort Robinson, NE which is one of the best preserved of the forts built to take part in the Indian wars. The fort is now a state park which it has been since the late 1950’s. It was begun as an outpost of Ft. Laramie, WY to protect the Red Cloud Indian agency in 1874. The Ninth & Tenth Cavalry, both black units and called Buffalo Soldiers by the plains Indians were stationed there, starting in 1885 for eighteen years. The current flagstaff was built in 1890 for the main parade ground.
It is the location where chief Crazy Horse was killed, and later was the scene of the “Cheyenne Uprising.” Some years later it was made the largest remount center for the US Army supplying both cavalry horses and draft animals to the artillery and quartermasters. By the start of WWII it was also the home of the training program for “War Dogs” which was the first use of dogs in combat by the Army. During WWII there was also a POW camp constructed there which eventually housed more than 3,000 German POW’s.
Today the park houses three different museums, has two large campgrounds, an active playhouse, riding stables, stagecoach rides, horse drawn tours, bike rentals, walking tours, campfire programs and many other activities. There are buildings of the former housing areas which are available for visitor rentals as are the officer quarters. The main cavalry barracks now hoses a gift shop, restaurant, and some rooms for rental. Some of the former remount stables are now available for rental of those who travel with horses and there are miles of trails to ride. Another interesting stop is the original Ft. Cemetery, which is still there with most of the stones, even though the military graves were moved to Ft. McPherson National Cemetery in 1948.
There are tours of the park available or you can drive your private auto through most of the areas as long as ou stay on the roads. The park is home to a heard of buffalo and bighorn sheep have been reintroduced to the bluffs along the ridges of the park, although they are seldom seen by visitors. The coyote, NE state animal is pretty common. Most of the buildings are original to the post with the period of construction ranging over the life of the fort. Because the post was never totally abandoned there are far more of the buildings still remaining, although some were destroyed to eliminate the need for maintenance in the priod that it was controled by the USDA. Today there are efforts underway to replace the ones of historic significance that were previously destroyed. The base chapple is now in use as a church located in Crawford, where it was moved after being surplussed.
The fort is of special interest to me as my father’s older brother was a soldier who was stationed there for several years in the period of about 1922 to 1925. While visiting the historical society museum I was given the email for a person who was historian there and who has custody now of the fort’s personnel records. Because my uncle was medically discharged and sent home to die, it would be very interesting to see if more can be learned about him as my father actually knew very little.
Ft. Robinson is locates near Crawford, NE and on US20. It is near the border with South Dakota and a short distsnce from the Black Hills.
One of the unique features of the Black Hills is what they call "Needles Highway" or SD87 from between Custer City & Hill City, up and into Custer State park. It is not a drive for one towing or driving an RV unless you are far above the average in driving skills for narrow roads and tight openings. Even with excellent skills, this is not a road for the faint of heart! This narration is from the west to east, but either direction is find as long as you drive something that fits through narrow tunnels.
The road is made up of many very tight hairpin turns and has three very narrow tunnels. The first is quite short, only 10 or 20 feet long and is 10 feet 6 inches wide by 10 feet 7 inches tall. What makes it challenging is that it comes at the apex of an outside turn. As you near the top you arrive at Sylvn Lake, where SD89 also comes up from the south and gives an alternate route for those wishing to avoid the tightest of the tunnels. Sylvan Lake is a beautiful spot and has a lodge, campground, and even canoe & boat rentals. We stopped to take a little time to walk around the lake area and it is beautiful! If you enjoy picnics this would be a perfect place to pause for one as well as a nice break in driving. Sylvan Lake area is very popular with tourists so expect crowded conditions and arrive early if you wish to have a picnic table to spend more time. Even with eating in the car, it is picturesque to the point that you should pause even if the traffic is heavy there. Most of that traffic uses SD89 so you won't have jams in many locations of the road we are traveling.
A few miles father to the east there is a scond tunnel that requires a bit more as the width falls to only 8 feet, 4 inches and it is probably at least 50 feet in length but 12 feet high. All of this is interspersed with some beautiful views and facination rock formations. It doesn't take a lot of study to understand the reason for the rocks being called needles as there are many small verticle formations and spires. At the very top is one called the needle's eye which even has a hole completely through it. There are many areas to get off of the road to take pictures and the road is quite narrow but is two way, Of course with many tourists on the road it isn't uncommon for one to be afraid of the outside edge such that you simply must stop to let them squeese past. From tunnel 2 to tunnel 3 is about another mile and you will want to spend some time at the parking area just before you pass through this tunnel as there is no parking space on the east end of the tunnel for about 1/2 mile. This tunnel is 9 feet wide and 12 feet 3 inches high. We did stop at the overlook to look back into the tunnel but the views on the west end are breath taking and not to be missed. After several more miles of beautiful scenery and narrow winding roads you join US16a which bisects Custer State Park. This is one of those things that I would consider to be "must see" for any visit to the area.
The last tunnel is the most narrow at only 8 feet, 4 inches wide. We did see a dually truck approach from the parking at the west end and after checking mirrors closely, he chose to back into the parking area and return to Sylvan Lake. What really blew our minds was that as we were decending the east side, well below the last tunnel we met a tour bus heading in that direction. Wheter they turned around at an overlook or somehow made it through the tunnel, I will never know but I can say that we were both certain that we would not have traded places with the driver. Since that time we were told by one of the local people that there have been nore than one bus get stuck in the last tunnel and have to be winched out by a heavy wrecker.
Even though it means leaving the RV behind for most of us, I highly recommend that you take the time to travel this very exciting and spectacular road! There are some things which are just too good to miss, even when difficult.
On July 9 we made the trip to Mt. Rushmore for the evening lighting ceremony. Let me say that if you visit this place you need to stay for the evening program if at all possible. The program begins at 9 pm and the actual lighting of the faces at about 9:45. We drove first up through the highway 16A route on the way to Keystone just to see those impressive tunnels once more and to take some pictures of the effect that they give. This is one of the more impressive approaches to the Rushmore area and gives some very unique views. This is not a road for travel with your RV but is well worth a special trip to see it and the views of Mt. Rushmore.
After the trip over this interesting and scenic road we then drove into Keystone where we had dinner. We have now eaten in Keystone on three occasions and find the food to have been best at Teddy's Deli for sandwiches while both places we had dinner were very high priced, didn't have most of what they advertise and the food was at best, MAT (makes a turd) food in quality. About 6 pm we drove on up to the monument for the evening program. We chose to arrive early in order to be sure of seat selection and while that may be a good idea, we were earlier that really needed. But we spent some time looking around again and this is also a place we find easy to just pause for reflection.
As the sun sets it is interesting to watch the effect of light angles on the faces. Being a camera buff I found myself shooting numerous pictures in an attempt to capture the effects but with limited results. Just before 9 pm the ranger arrived and spent some time visiting those in the audience and promptly at 9 he began his opening remarks. He opened by taking us on a trip through history with a series of events which took place on July 9, such as Thomas Edison's kite flying experiment and the recording of a patent for the doughnut cutter! He must have listed at least one event for every 5/10 year period of history since the American Revolution. The presentation was followed by a film that told the story of the monument and a brief history of the part each of the four men played in our country's history that caused him to be chosen for the sculpture. As the film nears the end the lights pointed to the monument are slowly brought up, subutly at first and then to full display!
At the closing of the evening program the ranger asked all active duty members of the military and all veterans to please join him on the stage to assist in the lowering of the flag and to serve as an honor guard for the closing. I felt honored to be given a part in this closing of the program as did many other veterans who moved down to the stage. There were a very large number of us and we were a wide range in age and experience with one 18 year old who was home on leave from boot-camp and on up to a veteran of the Korean War who told me that he was 89 years old! It was truly a thrill to have been a part of such a special gathering. But the very best part of this story is yet to be told.
As we were departing from the stage area we all exchanged introductions and a young man came up to assist the Korean war veteran as he was quite infirm. I introduced myself to the fellow of perhaps 30 years or less. He told me that he was not a veteran but had overheard the older man wishing that he were able to go down and participate but doubting that he was physically able and so he just asked to be allowed to help that older veteran get down to participate and then back to his group that he came with. He was not a part of the veteran's party and didn't even know who the veteran was, but just had a sense of what it might mean to the older gentleman. When I began to thank him for his thoughtfulness, he responded by introducing the veteran and then quickly faded away into the crowd, declining any form of gratitude from either the Korean vet or myself. What a truly remarkable young man this fellow must be. He made my day as he demonstrated that there are still young people here who have an appreciation for what our forbearers have done for us! Whoever that fellow is, he is part of the hope for America's future!
One of the more interesting aspects of our travels has been the towns that we visit along the way. I am particularly fascinated by some of the smallest of them. The first one that was especially worthy of note that we visited in our SD experience has to have been Interior. This was the first town to be established in the area and remains the only one in the Bad Lands. It has grown and shrunk over the years but even with the population of only 42 people, they continue to maintain their pride in the community. Today the town is mostly occupied by retired ranch folks and a few employees of the National Park Service. There is only one store and no gasoline stations but it does still have a US Postal Office. The community is also home to two active church congregations and is the nearest community to the visitor center for the Badlands National Park. We found the folks to be very friendly and welcoming but the only food other than some groceries was the microwave sandwich bar in the little store there. The town sign tells the story of the community very briefly and list a number of the most famous of cowboys who have performed in rodeos there. They still hold those rodeos but don't get much coverage and Wide World of Sports seems to show little interest!
The next place that we visited which is in the small town category would have to be Keystone, just down the road from Mt. Rushmore. This is a tourist town of the first order with fewer than 500 year around residents and a booming population and business district in the summer season. We were told that most of main street is closed up by Thanksgiving and not much happens then until the following May.
Near Angostura park are two small towns that we seem to hear a great deal about even though they are both small towns and so we felt that we must explore them both. Our first stop was at Buffalo Gap, a town that is only 7 miles from Hot Springs. We drove over and first noted that the pavement stops about two miles before you get to the city limit. One of the first things that one might notice upon entering the town is that nearly everyone waves in greeting as you pass by. Children on bicycles, seniors in golf carts and even an occasional automobile move about the town, giving a cherry wave to the visitors with Texas license plates. What appears to have been the local bank building is now the city hall and the former school is now HQ for a horse preserve. There is a small park and there do seem to still be families about as well as a few farm/ranch related businesses. There are a few fairly new homes but from all that we could see the community is mostly one of commuters for employment. There are perhaps as many as 50 homes and there is a community center which has been advertising a dance for the next week which we are planning to visit just to meet more of the people who live there.
Our final stop for this tour is the town of Edgemont, which is some 25 miles to the south of Hot Springs and nearly to the Nebraska border. Edgemont is a railroad town and the Burlington Northern is the key to their existance and health today. The community still contains quite a few small businesses and there is also both a post office and a bank. They have a free museum which the citizens are justly proud of and volunteers greet each visitor and even give you a mini tour to get you started and also answer any questions that you may have about the community or it's history. Although the museum is small it has some wonderful things preserved there and the docents can tell you much of the history of most of the things they have on display. If you should choose to travel US highway 18 on your trip to the Black Hills you should take time to spend a few hours in Edgemont.
Today is Monday and the day after the big celebration and a long weekend as well as the first truly summer weather weekend of the year for this park. Our campground was completely filled in all 20 available sites and 6 of the 11 sites down at the horse camping area were in use. Next to our park is first an RV with many annual rental sites and next to that a mobile home park that is also mostly summer residents. there are also a number of nearby summer cottages and I do believe that every one of those was full as well. Our boat ramp was by far the most heavily used feature of the park with more than 80 vehicles in it as well as others along the road into the park. Over all it was a good weekend with very few problems and none at all from those who were staying in our campground. We did have one incident of a stolen ice chest, full of beer of course. It was never found but since it disappeared on the evening of the fourth, it probably went to the big beer & live music party in the park next-door to us, which was also the home of most of the rowdy folks to be seen. The neighbors did put on a great fireworks show for us and even quieted down before midnight.
All of this simply confirms my long held belief that there are far more good people in the world than there are bad and the camping world is one of the very best of the best. This week is a bit slower than we have had for a time as it seems everyone was here for the holiday and are now home recovering, but we do fill once more next weekend. Tomorrow we are off once more to hit the tourist trail, planning to make a trip over one of the scenic roads that we have not yet covered and then stop at Mt. Rushmore for the evening program before we return here to base. I hope that everyone reading this had a memorable time on this special holiday!