Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Black Hills, SD (Southern Half)

The Black Hills of western South Dakota rise up out of the surrounding brown treeless prairie, like an oasis appearing in the middle of a desert. This small area of mountains rise up to 7,244 feet and get their name from the dense evergreen forest that covers them, the mountains remind me of a western equivalent of the "Blue Ridge Mountains".  The Black Hills have long been associated with the Native Americans, but the discovery of gold in 1874 by settlers brought in miners by the boatload, and the gold rush was on.

From my home base in Colorado, the Black Hills are a manageable 300+ mile drive, unfortunately, 250 miles of that drive is through the brown featureless wind blown prairie of Wyoming. You can break up the drive though and stop at some interesting historical points on the route, such as Fort Laramie and the Guernsey ruts (click for info from my blog). Entering the Black Hills from the south you would either be travelling on Highway 18 via Edgemont, or Highway 385/18 via Hot Springs. Edgemont is a very small town built around the railroad, it serves as a change over point for BNSF drivers, there is not much to the town, but the small museum is worth a quick stop, and the wonderful George S. Mickelson Bicycle Trail begins/ends here.

Covered Bridge at the Edgemont museum

If you arrive in the Black Hills via Hot Springs, then a must-see site is the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, this museum is in my opinion as worthy of a visit as any of the more famous Black Hill sights. The museum is built over an old (VERY old) sinkhole, the water and vegetation of the sinkhole, unfortunately, attracted Mammoths that could not get out once they fell in. The site is an active dig still, and the tour guides are extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic. The bones that have been found date back 26,000 years!.

Mammoth bones at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs

Hot Springs is bigger than Edgemont, and has much more amenities (a few hotels, handful of restaurants, and a brewery a few miles out of town), the town makes a decent base for exploring the southerly portion of the Black Hills.

Jail from 1888 located in the small historic part of Hot Springs

Driving northerly from either Edgemont or Hot Springs, the first major sight you will reach is Wind Cave National Park then Custer State Park. Wind Cave National Park boasts being the sixth-longest cave complex in the world, and the first cave to be designated as a National Park anywhere in the world. Above ground, the National Park preserves one of the largest mixed-grass prairies in the USA, and it is above ground that visitors usually get a taste for the abundance of wildlife the Black Hills has on offer. It is not uncommon to see Bison, Deer, Elk, Pronghorn, Coyote, and of course Prairie Dogs.

Wind Cave National Park Prairie

Immediately adjacent to the north of Wind Cave is Custer State Park, this park is HUGE, it covers an area of 71,000 acres, and includes everything from mixed-grass Prairie to soaring high granite peaks. There is a $20 entrance fee for cars (valid for 7-days), but the cost is 1000% worth it. Three roads encircle the park: The Needles Highway, Iron Mountain road, and the Wildlife Loop, I highly recommend taking your time and exploring each of these roads, they all offer something different.
If you travel in a clockwise direction around the park the Needles Highway is the first road, soaring up above 6000 feet (closed in the winter) it offers up some fine vistas, great hiking, amazing granite spires, and some tight road tunnels cut through the rock.

The Needles highway

Just before exiting Custer State Park on the Needles highway you pass Sylvan Lake, this little jewel of a lake is a haven for picnickers, Weddings, and hiking, including the trailhead for the hike to Black Elk Peak (the highest mountain in the Black Hills).

Sylvan Lake

After leaving The Needles Highway you exit Custer State Park and Highway 87 sends you northerly towards Hill City, then easterly towards Keystone and the famous Mount Rushmore National Memorial. No visit to the Black Hills is complete without a stop to see this marvel of rock sculpting on a colossal scale.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

After leaving Mount Rushmore National Memorial, you can turn north to the town of Keystone, or southerly back into Custer State Park on Iron Mountain Road. Iron Mountain Road climbs up to 5000 feet via a series of interesting "Pigtail" road curves and tunnels, along the route you get some great views back to Mount Rushmore. Iron Mountain Road eventually joins up with the Custer State Park visitor centre, and the intersection with the Wildlife Loop Road. The Wildlife Loop Road is like driving through a safari park, herds of Bison often block the road, and donkeys too!. 1,300 Bison call Custer State Park home, and it is quite a sight to see!.

Bison on the Wildlife Loop Road

Kicking up dust

The closest towns to Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore that make decent bases are Custer and Hill City. Custer is the biggest of the two and has a wider selection of brand named hotels (Note: some hotels are open in peak season only!), but I slightly prefer Hill City for it's more rustic and western feel. Hill City is home to the small but very good Museum @ Black Hills Institute (home to "Stan" the T-Rex), also home to the 1880 train, and also home to the wonderful Miners Brewery and Prairie Berry Winery. The 1880 Train is a narrow guage historic Steam train that travels between Hill City and Keystone, it's a beautiful journey, and makes a great day out for all the family.

The 1880 Train in Hill City

Stan the T-Rex


Essential info

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