Our first stop in the Black Hills was the Chapel in the Hills, which as you can guess was set in a ponderosa forest with a few hardwoods here and there. It is a replica of a Norwegian stave church, built entirely of wood, with ornate carvings inside and out. Given the bustle of the touristy places we have been, it was a refreshing stop for us. We drove along to the northern black hills, where we took in lunch at Deadwood (home of the HBO TV series, I'm told, though I've never seen it) and then ventured to Lead, the black hills mining capital and home to one of America's deepest mines (Homestead, which closed in 2001). We toured a museum which described the history of mining and mining life in the town through the years. Gold drove the first European settlement of these hills, thereby breaking a treaty with the native tribes (as goes the story of westward expansion). The Black Hills are home to a large National Forest by the same name, where harvesting was amply evident. Log trucks were rolling along the highways for miles before we reached the roadside site they were thinning.
I believe most of work is thinning and understory removal to reduce likelihood of catastrophic fire. Under the healthy forests initiative, thousands of acres have been thinned, and piles made to be burned or carried away. This effect has been affectionately called "miles of piles" and it is indeed true. Some thinning in the forest may also be salvage after the incredible outbreak of mountain pine beetle in the area. This little bug is killing at massive rates all across the west, and has not spared the black hills. Dead trees could be seen across nearly every overlook. Incidentally, the Black Hills are named so because of the nearly pure ponderosa pine forests which cover the hills. The tree has almost black
bark at a young age, adding orange as it matures, and dark, evergreen
foliage that at a distance gives a very black appearance to the hills.
The Black Hills are also home to arguably one of the best State Parks in the whole country. Custer State Park, run by South Dakota State Parks is spectacular, worthy of National Park status, and largely run like one. Brian and I were deeply impressed with their services, management, sites and accessibility. We stayed two nights in the Park at two different campgrounds and utilized it as a jumping off point for our Black Hills explorations. On our first night, we entered via the Needles Highway, a winding road that takes you up and amongst great granite spires and back down through ponderosa pine forests.
After we arrived at the campground and set up, we had to take shelter in the car for an hour long thunderstorm and downpour. It was a bit wet in the tent after that. Next morning we packed wet gear away and headed out early to see park wildlife.
Reintroductions to this park included pronghorn, bison, prairie dogs and elk. Herds, particularly of bison are managed, but let to roam somewhat freely in the park. Taking back roads instead of the main loop (Brian's idea, about which he commented later - "I knew the way, I am one with Tatanka"), we saw deer, pronghorn, prairie dogs and then hit the mother-load - the whole herd of bison. There was a good 10 minutes before another car came up behind us, so we had some rare private time watching these magnificent creatures of the plains. Bison were the source of life for the plains Indians, who migrated with herds and utilized every part of the animal for daily life. They called this great beast Tatanka, and considered it sacred.
More and more cars arrived, and we stayed parked watching the bison for about an hour until our stomachs grumbled. We ate lunch at the Game Lodge, where Brian had a partridge and pasta dish and I had buffalo strogonoff. Came, saw, ate, and loved it. :) Nothing like wild grass fed meat. Iron Mountain road is the scenic route to Mt. Rushmore, affording multiple views across the Hills, long-distance panoramas of the mountain and a winding road with one-way rock tunnels. I took some great shots along the way, and was setting up a nice timer photo of myself and Brian when our 5 year old Canon fell off a rock and bounced down a ledge. And that was the end of it. Pictures for a few days were taken on Brian's phone. Isn't modern technology great? Never without a camera.
Mount Rushmore was sort of a shock for me. Last time I came by with the fam in 1989 there was a little metal visitors center and 500 car parking lot, so I figured the whole thing visit shouldn't take long. You should see this place now - huge multilayer lots, entrance gates like toll booths, audio tours, walking tours, amphitheater, huge museum, videos, bookstores, full service restaurant and snackbar...and tons of people. The place felt like a zoo. Many of the new additions are great, and I guess I can be glad that so many people treasure this piece of art, and proclaimed monument to democracy. I have to say, as a skeptic - it IS impressive. As is the massive mountain carving in process, the Crazy Horse Memorial, which we saw from a distance.
We camped a second night in the park and then headed south to Wind Cave National Park, the 4th longest cave system in the world. The cave is so called because in appropriate conditions, wind actually blows out the natural entrance, causing a whistling sound. We were able to get on a tour through the cave, which highlights the history and uniqueness of the site. Particularly neat and rare in the world is the box structures, which are actually seams of rock harder than their surroundings which remain when the rock is slowly worn away (no pictures, as we had no camera). The National Park also preserves the prairie ecosystem above the cave and hosts its own herd of bison.
Our day continued with a drive to Casper, WY, with an accidental turn that led us to there via Ft. Laramie rather than Douglas, but gave Brian a chance to see a great old military outpost along the old Oregon/California/Mormon Trails and Pony Express stop. This site is part of my more recent memory, as it was part of the great Sargent family Lewis and Clark/Oregon Trail journey of 1998. We toured the grounds and then crossed the North Platte River. For those of you familiar with the game Oregon Trail - we chose a bridge crossing, utilizing a Subaru forester, no lives were lost, and no bones were broken. Oh for the modern era.
The smell of ponderosa pine is to me the scent of the Rockies. More specifically, Colorado, and my cousin Sam's house in near Colorado Springs which is set amongst ponderosas. It was the first thing I noticed upon stepping out of the vehicle in the Black Hills - that smell! Ponderosa pine bark, for your information, smells of birthday cake/vanilla. In stands of pure ponderosa, mix that with the needles and pitch in warm, dry air and there is an iconic scent. I wish I could bottle it up.