Black Hills Part 1: Northern and Central Hills

Trip Start Nov 22, 2007
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Trip End Dec 01, 2008


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Flag of United States  , South Dakota
Saturday, August 30, 2008

Black Hills, South Dakota August 29 - September 23, 2008
Part 1: Northern Black Hills
We left East Glacier disappointed that we weren't able to get out and experience much---the cold, rainy weather left us RV bound most of the time. We could see that snow had begun to fall up in the mountains, and the weather forecast made it clear that the cold season was coming early to Glacier, Montana this year. On the bright side, when we hit the road Winnie was clean. We spent a day washing it and the trailer in the drizzle.
We headed southeast across Montana to South Dakota. An amazing frontier-long roads with mostly nothing on either side but prairies and rolling hills dotted with huge rolls of hay and snow fences, a couple of windmill farms, lots of cattle, pronghorn, and the occasional double-wide sitting next to a dilapidated barn or other out building. Much of the time, you have a view that is much the same for 360 degrees. We have never seen so much grassland or sky uninterrupted.
The Black Hills area has much to offer for all kinds of tastes. Certainly if you are a motorcycle rider, we believe that the riding here is among the best. We camped in Spearfish for a few days at the Mountain View Campground, where we met a new friend, Bob. We took an all day drive on the scenic byway 14a through Spearfish Canyon, down to the junction with Route 16, through Deadwood and up to Sturgis and back to Spearfish one day. Spearfish Canyon is pretty, with lots of woods and streams cutting though the canyon walls. Bob got hold of a gopher snake that was trying to get across the road and we got some pictures. The prevalent rock is named after the area, Spearfish shale. But the Blackhills area is known for the incredible granite rock formations. These are more even evident south of Spearfish, toward Keystone, Custer, and Hill City.
After lots of nice scenery on the way, we stopped for a spell in Deadwood. Deadwood is a neat little town. This is the town where Wild Bill Hickok was shot during the infamous poker game after he got "the dead man's hand" (aces and eights). They do re-enactments of the shooting a few times a day. Main Street is lined with souvenir shops and casinos mostly. We gambled a little and had breakfast and then moved on down the road. Sturgis was of less interest to us, but we can now say we have been. We didn't stay long, but to us, it was just a small town with a few huge drinking and eating establishments lining Main Street, some of which already were closed for the season, as the annual motorcycle rally that makes this place famous was over a few weeks before. Can't imagine how hard it would be to drive through there during the rally.

After a few days in Spearfish in the northern part of the Black Hills, we drove south to the Mt. Rushmore area, which is right in the middle of the Black Hills. We found a great little campground just outside the northwest corner of Custer State Park called Horsethief Campground (the private one, not the one that's part of the national forest system). The owners are very friendly, and the campsites are reasonably priced. The location is great for access to Custer State Park as well as for Mt. Rushmore, Hill City, and Keystone. From here we rode the Needles Highway, a scenic road that goes through Custer State Park. This was one of the best motorcycle rides-the road follows along stream, river, lake at the canyon bottom, then works its way up the hills through a section of rock formations called the Needles because they stand like pointed pillars of granite. The Needles Highway has a number of one-lane tunnels cut right through the stone cliff walls, one no higher than 10 feet 7 inches and one no wider than 8 feet 4 inches. You can ride the Needles Highway through the park, then circle around and take another scenic route, Iron Mountain Road, to get to Keystone. That was our original plan. On our way up Iron Mountain, we ran into a herd of wild burros. Got some great pictures of one of the babies. We got about halfway up Iron Mountain before the skies got darker and darker ahead, with the occasional flash of lightning. We decided to head for home instead. We had just got home and the bikes in the trailer when the skies opened up! So, we didn't make it to Keystone that day.

We did get to Keystone, but we took the 1881 steam train from Hill City instead of the motorcycles. This restored train runs twice a day between the two towns. It takes about 1 hour for the train to make the 10 mile trek one-way over the granite hills that separate the towns. Along the way you can see deer and wild turkeys, as well as some beautiful countryside, and Harney Peak-the highest point between the Swiss Alps and the Rocky Mountains. The route is the original train route laid down in the 1880s to service the mines and mills between Hill City and Keystone. The train itself has a restored steam engine and cars and has been filmed in episodes of Gunsmoke and Deadwood, was featured in a Big and Rich music video, and is occasionally used in movies. It's a fun, slow ride, with photographers that will insert your picture in a photo of Mt. Rushmore and of the train for a small fee. (We had them use our faces instead of Washington and Jefferson!) We shopped and had lunch in Keystone and found a great gift store that had a bunch of hats made out of animal pelts. Next to the hat display was a display of whacky glasses. Well, there was no stopping us from spending about a half hour trying on different combinations of hats and glasses and laughing until we cried. We really can have fun just about anywhere. After a few hours of fun in Keystone, we caught the train back to Hill City.
Keystone is the town nearest Mt. Rushmore. We were surprised as we drove the Winnebago along Route 16 toward our new campsite to see the monument appear as we rounded a bend in the road. I guess we thought you had to drive to it to see it, but, no. There it was, clearly visible from the road. Of course, you aren't allowed to park roadside to photograph it. What you are supposed to do is pay $10 to park in the parking area that surrounds the monument-otherwise you can't "legally" get a full-face view of the monument or to visit the Visitor's Center. There is free parking on the profile side of the monument though. We took the bikes back there one day and decided to park down the road and take a hike up the side of the hill to get a closer view. After a nice hike and some serious rock climbing (check out the pictures) we found a great vantage point for viewing that gave us a view, (Roosevelt was obscured). We could also look down into the valley to see Keystone and miles of landscape. In the other direction, you could make out the Needles in the low hanging clouds that surrounded the area. We saw a couple rainbows too! Hopefully you can make them out in the pictures.

We happened to be in the Mt. Rushmore area at the same time that they were undertaking the semi-annual blasting of the Crazy Horse Memorial. Whereas it took something like 14 years to complete Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial has been a work in progress for 60 years. It is funded from entry fees and private donations. They have built a whole complex here, with a museum and visitor' center where you can learn about Crazy Horse and other Native American heritage. Twice a year, they blast portions of the rock off the cliff of the partially completed sculpture. By sheer luck we were there for the September blast, and videotaped the explosions. It was really neat. The blast is really a series of blasts-successive charges of dynamite blow up outlining the cliff in silhouette and shadow. The ground shakes and the sky lights up like fireworks. After about 20-30 explosions the ground stops shaking and your ears are ringing and everyone claps.
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