So much to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota

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Spar Crystals

When there are many things to see and do in an area, we try to prioritize what we would like to experience and accept the reality that we can’t do it all.  Leaving a few items unchecked gives us a good reason to come back and enjoy the area again.

Such was the case here in the Black Hills area.  Our wildlife encounters were just half the fun.  Then there were monuments to marvel at, historic towns to visit, scenery to take in, amazing geologic formations to enjoy and a little history to learn.  And I must not forget one of the most important activities – hitting the trails!  So much to do in so little time – and to think we were here for two weeks!

First, the monuments –

With more than 175 miles of mapped and surveyed passageways, Jewel Cave National Monument is the third-longest cave in the world.  To get underground we joined the Scenic Tour, which took us trudging down 723 stairs.  The beautiful “jewels” of Jewel Cave are the calcite spar crystals.  Calcite, which is about as hard as your fingernail, is too soft to be considered a true jewel.  But the cave is lined with calcite crystals which is why it’s called Jewel Cave.  We got the experience of being inside a giant geode.

Spar Crystals

Nail head spar crystals

Spar Crystals

Everyone knows about Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and being one of Steve’s must-see’s made it a stop for us.  Getting there took us on a scenic drive among the Ponderosa Pines and rocky outcroppings high in the Black Hills.  We avoided the crowds by arriving right at opening time, after winding along Iron Mountain Road and crossing through three tunnels which were designed to frame the monument in the distance.  With nobody else on the roads yet, Steve was able to stop each time I yelled so I could capture what we saw through the tunnels.

Mount Rushmore

Four faces of great presidents: Washington, Jefferson, T. Roosevelt and Lincoln

After parking, we followed the Presidential Trail that winds along the base of the mountain and provides various angles to look up at The Faces.  Then we continued on the trail to the Sculptor’s Studio and finally completed the loop at the Grandview Terrace.

At the Lincoln Borglum Museum we watched the 13-minute video that explained how and why the memorial was created and carved.  The museum contained interactive exhibits that detailed the history and development of the sculpture.

Sculptor Gurzon Borglum

A side shot showing the sculpture of sculptor Gurzon Borglum looking out at his creation

Next we visited the nearby “fifth face” that will someday dwarf Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial.  In progress since 1948, it’s the world’s largest mountain carving and it honors the historic heritage and living cultures of North America’s Indian people.  Korczak Ziolkowski took up the challenge to carve a giant sculpture depicting Crazy Horse atop his steed.

Unlike the faces at Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial relies on donations and visitor’s fees to fund the continuing project, hence there is no estimated date of completion.  At the rate it’s progressing it’s unlikely I’ll live to see it completed.

Crazy Horse Memorial

A 563-foot tall work in progress.  The faces at Rushmore would fit in the area just behind Crazy Horse’s face!

It’s creation was the dream of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear to memorialize Crazy Horse, the legendary warrior and leader of the Lakota Sioux.  Born in the Black Hills, he is partially credited with Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  Ziolkowski dedicated his life to the sculpture, and after his death in 1982 his wife and seven of their ten children continued his work.

Crazy Horse Memorial

If ever the sculpture is completed, it should look like this model

The Black Hills scenic byways –

The best way to see the Black Hills is to drive them!   We put many miles on the car as we took in the amazing views while following corkscrew turns and tunnels showcasing the uniqueness of the hills.  We followed the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway with its limestone palisades towering on both sides of the highway.  On another day we took our time winding through the Needles Highway – a drive that traverses a maze of granite formations that look like needles and spires.

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

Limestone palisades along Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

While following the gorgeous Iron Mountain Road we stopped to read the displays detailing the massive fires that scarred the mountains and are still visible today.  The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway complimented the other scenic drives, and included dramatic historic features found only in the Black Hills.

Needles Highway

That red car is going into the Needles Tunnel, where the mountain goats liked to hang out

Hiking galore –

With the abundance of hiking trails, we grabbed trail maps and took to the hills every chance we got.  We tackled ten trails during our stay, four near Spearfish – Iron Creek, Rough Falls, Crow’s Peak and Lookout Mountain – and six trails that are part of the Harney Peak Trail System – Harney Peak, Cathedral Spires, Lover’s Leap, Little Devil’s Tower, Sylvan Lake and Stockade Lake.  It’s impossible to detail them all here, but check out Hans and Lisa’s great pictures and information, as we did, to prepare for our treks here.

Crows Peak Trail

Crow’s Peak Trail summit at Spearfish

Spearfish, SD

View of Spearfish from the challenging Lookout Mountain Trail

Lookout Mountain

Steve tried to reason with this cow, but it didn’t seem to be impressed

The highlight of our hikes was the strenuous trek to the highest point in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.  At 7,242 feet, Harney Peak features a stone tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a fire watchtower in 1938.  It was used until 1967, and since then it has provided awesome 360º views of the Black Elk Wilderness, massive granite outcroppings and towering rock spires.

Harney Peak Fire Lookout Tower

View from the lookout tower on Harney Peak

Cathedral Spires

Looking out at the Cathedral Spires from the summit of Little Devil’s Tower

Cathedral Spires

The Cathedral Spires derived their name from the towering peaks that look like organ pipes

Sylvan Lake

We walked around the man-made Sylvan Lake – it’s a wow!

Lovers Leap Trail

Dense Ponderosa Pines along Lover’s Leap Trail

And let’s not forget the cute little things on the ground that caught our eye…

…and the birds that kept busy storing their winter goodies…

Finally, the historic towns –

For obvious reasons, we made sure not to be in the Black Hills area during the 75th anniversary of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.  Seeing the thousands of bikers on TV during rally week was enough to keep us away from Sturgis during the first week of August.  But why not go there afterward?  When we arrived it was back to being pretty much a sleepy town.  We stopped at the Full Throttle Saloon, “the world’s largest biker bar” which was featured on a “reality TV show” for several seasons and just burned to the ground a few days ago.

Full Throttle Saloon

Looks like a nice place to have a beer!

Full Throttle Saloon

Wandering through the mostly-empty Full Throttle Saloon

Since we aren’t gamblers, we spent our time in Deadwood checking out the Days of ’76 Museum, a salute to the historic mining camp born in 1876 during the area’s last great gold rush.  I was curios what the “76” was about, and I got my answer in this museum where extensive Old West collections are showcased.

Days of 76 Museum

Days of 76 Museum


After all that walking we were ready for a big dinner, and Steve wanted to try the highly-rated prime rib at Legends.  He just about fell out of his chair when they set a 32-ounce slab of beef in front of him, and was a happy camper as he worked on it for the next three days!


All Steve could say was WOW!

Yes, it was a busy stop with much to see and do, but we had a great time in the Black Hills and would love to come back.  The beautiful weather we enjoyed during our stop made it that much better.

But alas, the calendar told us it was time to move along…


Next up:  Famous landmarks in Nebraska



Wildlife Alert! – Black Hills, South Dakota

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Several of you who have been to the Black Hills and recommended that we make it a “must-do” while in South Dakota would agree with me that it’s a great place for fun, outdoor adventure and to be surrounded by the delights of nature.  Naturally we spent our days there in the outdoors, either driving the scenic byways, gazing at the monuments or hitting the trails.

Custer State Park

It was while doing these activities that we learned how rich the area is with wildlife in their natural habitat.  I snapped so many pictures of them that I thought they deserved their own post.  So I hope this “wildlife alert” will be entertaining for all you lovers of wild animals, as it was for us.

Let me begin with a regular guest at our campsite.  Unlike Sparrows, the White-winged Juncos didn’t hang around and “bogart” the feeder.  They just came by now and then for a little snack, then went on their merry way.  So we had to be ready to enjoy and photograph their snack sessions:

White-winged Junco

A White-winged Junco with his eye on our feeder

We encountered the biggest snake of our travels so far.  It wasn’t a rattlesnake, but it was big enough that we wanted nothing to do with it:


Steve estimated it to be 3 1/2 – 4 ft. long

Are these guys eligible for Thanksgiving dinner?  If so, they’d better go into hiding soon!

Wild Turkeys

Prairie Dogs are common here.  They’re social rodents that group together and build their own little “towns”.  They get their name from the bark-like call that they make to each other.

Prairie Dog

Why did the Prairie Dog cross the road?

Prairie Dogs

To get home for dinner before his wife yelled at him!

These Yellow-bellied Marmots are a type of large Ground Squirrel, and they’re also known here as Woodchucks, Groundhogs or “Whistling Pigs.”  I thought they were eyeing us, but it turns out they don’t have good eyesight.  They do have excellent hearing and smell senses, though.


One early morning we heard a rustling in the woods along highway 16A and looked up to see a large herd of Elk…

Herd of Elk

Elk Herd

…and this handsome specimen led his harem into the forest:

Elk Bull

The paparazzi were waiting outside Needle Rock Tunnel for some celebrities to appear:

Needles Highway Tunnel

But these stars weren’t ready for the limelight until they finished licking minerals off the tunnel walls.  This family of beautiful Mountain Goats were introduced into the Black Hills in 1924, and are part of a group of about 400 that live here now.

Mountain Goat

They’re not true goats, but close relatives.  They are more properly known as goat-antelopes.  A female is called a nanny, a male is a billy, and young are known as kids.

Mountain Goats

Folks finally got tired of waiting in the tunnel, and someone had to shoo these guys away so traffic could pass:

Mountain Goat

One day we got up early and drove the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road within Custer State Park.  On its 71,000 acres of grassland and pine-speckled hills the park protects an array of wildlife.

Custer State Park

Our first sightings were the non-native Burros.  They were descendants from a herd that once hauled visitors to the top of Harney Peak.  These animals were released into the park where they now beg for treats from passing tourists.


A posse on the road waiting for treats


Knock-knock, do you have a snack for us?

Pronghorns get their name from the buck’s large pronged horns.  They are considered the fastest land animal in North America, running at up to 60 mph for great distances.

Pronghorns locking horns

These guys seem to be doing battle…


…while the girls stand by to watch the action

Pronghorns also like to cross the road here, but they don’t dilly-dally like the Mountain Goats:


Then there were the Bison.  The Custer State Park herd averages 1,450 animals after the calves are born, which reduces to about 950 in time for the public auction.  Every September they are rounded up and herded into corrals.  Calves are branded and females vaccinated, with some sorted out for sale at the annual auction  The remaining ones are released to the park for another year.


Happy Bison

The auction is held in November, and buyers from all over the U.S. and Canada purchase animals from the park for breeding stock or slaughter.  Duff Ranch in Kansas, where we rode with the Bison (click here for that story), turns out to be one of the buyers.


The Bison is the official logo of Custer State Park, and its claim to fame is this world-class wildlife refuge.


And that was just the wildlife!

Next up:  So much to do in the Black Hills!

A Wind and Water Sculpture Masterpiece – South Dakota’s Badlands

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Badlands National Park

After being wowed by the lesser-known North Dakota Badlands, we began our southward trek and spent two weeks in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Steve’s parents were from South Dakota, and growing up he heard a lot about the Black Hills area and the many exciting things to do here.  So he was fired up that we were finally going to experience them, and I was about to unknowingly fall in love with the area myself!

There was so much to do here that I’m getting seriously behind in my posts, and we barely had enough time to see everything on out list. But I’m trying to keep my priorities straight – fun and fitness first, then blogging as time permits!

Badlands National Park

We began with one of Steve’s bucket list items, the popular and rugged Badlands National Park.  I decided to post this one immediately following the one about the North Dakotas Badlands, for a better appreciation of the erosive forces of nature and the sculpted land it leaves behind in both areas.  They were created about the same time, 65 million years ago, but we saw more spires and pinnacles on this stop.  The rock layers contained hues of green, gold, buff and pink, which made them very colorful.

Badlands National Park

The Native Indians call this place “Mako Washte,” because they saw it teeming with life.  French trappers called it “bad land to cross.”

The park protects 242,756 acres of badlands, blended with the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States.  We entered from the west on highway 44 past the town of Scenic through the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.  Our first stop was at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center near the town of Interior.

At the Visitor’s Center we were advised that driving the Badlands Scenic Loop Byway was the best way to learn the science behind its barren landscape, and at the same time enjoy the breathtaking vistas and quiet atmosphere it provides.

Badlands National Park

From the signs and plaques at several overlooks we learned that the badlands were formed by the geologic processes of deposition and erosion.  The land was forced up, and the sea slowly drained away.  A jungle developed on the exposed seabed, transforming the mud and shale into a bright yellow soil.

During the Oligocene period, the warm and humid climate slowly became cool and dry.  As the lands to the west rose even higher, sediment-loaded floods washed over this level region, depositing layer after layer of mud, volcanic ash and sand. Under pressure of successive layers, these sediments became soft rock.

Badlands National Park

Green-gray layers made up of river silts, clays and volcanic ash that ran through here

Continuous water and wind erosion have sculpted soft sedimentary rock into intricate mazes of narrow ravines, V-shaped gullies, ridges, buttes, and colorful pinnacles.  The result is rock layers that reveal subtle hues of sand, rose, gold and green.  Erosion continues to carve the badlands buttes today, and scientists speculate that in 500,000 years it will be flat again.


Badlands National Park

The main geological feature of the Badlands National Park is best described as a long ridge, or “wall” that extends nearly 100 miles south into the panhandle of the State of Nebraska. This wall divides the park into the upper and lower prairie.

The Scenic Loop Byway followed the wall, snaking through passes and sometimes dipping to the lower prairie.  We enjoyed looking up at the spires and multi-layered ridges with a beautiful blue sky above to provide stark relief.

We climbed to the rim at one of the overlooks to view the cliffs and canyons below:

Badlands National Park

Ravines and canyons abound here

Hiking the Notch Trail, we had a good view of the badlands dropping down to the lower prairie, with the White River Valley below:

White River Valley

Then we followed the Door Trail to a landscape that made me feel like I was on another planet:

Badlands National Park, Door Trail

Standing on yet another badlands marvel

We did not see big wildlife, but I captured these little amphibians along the trail:

At the end of our badlands visit we saw an area where yellow and red were the colors on the hills.  They were called Yellow Mound Paleosols, and they are evidence that a jungle resided here covered by a shallow sea which left behind its shale-exposed signatures.


The yellow soil is a result of tree roots that broke up the shale and chemicals from decaying plants.  Then 37 millions years later sediments from the west washed over the jungle.  The jungle rebounded, converting the new sediment into red soil.  Buried once again by later sediment, both yellow and red soils were fossilized – and that’s what we’re seeing today. Amazing!

Badlands National Park

Fossilized yellow and red soils

I could go on and on (as you probably suspected), but being in the badlands, also known as the White River Badlands, is a study in fascination.  Nature continues to amaze us, and we’re very thankful that these areas are being protected for future generations.

On our way out of the park I caught a glimpse of this house sitting on top of the layered badlands, painted in a color that blended well with the colored rock layers.  Pretty cool, but would you build your house on top of an eroding badlands?

Badlands National Park

Steve was happy to check this one off his bucket list, and I have to admit I did the same!


Next Up:  Critter Alert! – Black Hills, South Dakota




We visit Steve’s mom’s hometown – Yankton, SD

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Yankton, South Dakota

We had two weeks to kill before the WIT (Winnebago International Travelers) Club Grand National Rally in Iowa, so we made a slight detour and pointed Betsy toward Yankton, South Dakota.  This stop had several areas of significance for us: (1)Yankton is Steve’s mom’s hometown (2)South Dakota is the 43rd state we’ve visited and (3) Betsy had finally parked in our state of residency!

Yankton, South Dakota

Steve’s parents were from South Dakota.  His dad was from Sioux Falls and his mom from Yankton.  Some of his grandparents and great-grandparents had settled in Yankton, coming from Denmark in the early 1900’s.  Great-grandma Larsen lived to 102 years old, and her daughter, Steve’s grandma McElwain, made it to 99 – passing away in 2008.  Although he hadn’t been here since then, Yankton has grown significantly.  Incredibly, both of their homes still stand:

We were also able to re-connect with Steve’s second cousin Jim, who has lived in Yankton all his life with his wife Lynn and some of their family.  Our dinner at Jim and Lynn’s beautiful log home was spent reminiscing about the family’s past.  We were excited to look through Lynn’s excellent scrapbook full of family photos and stories.  Thank you for your hospitality, Jim and Lynn!

Jim invited us to the annual Tractor Drive Parade that happened during our stay.  He drove his beautifully-restored John Deere tractor, and 200 other folks also went through downtown on their antique tractors from the participating states of Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota.


That’s Jim on his brand-new-looking John Deere. These folks are serious about their tractors!

We had “front row” seats, and Steve obviously enjoyed the show – as he does anything displaying mechanical things.  The oldest tractor we saw was a McCormick Farmall built in 1946 (and still running).  We had a great time!


This would be a good town for Betsy to get stuck in the mud!

Tractor Ride, Yankton SD

Jim and Lynn dropped by for a visit at our campground, and we shared our stories of life on the road.  They had traveled extensively for years on a motorcycle, so we had lots to talk about.

On another day we drove out to the nearby city of Vermillion, where the University of South Dakota is located.  We walked around the beautiful campus and admired the building architecture.  A couple of tidbits – Tom Brokaw and the famous Noble-prize winning physicist E.O. Lawrence both graduated from this university, and Steve’s grandma once danced with Lawrence Welk when he worked in the Yankton area!

University of South Dakota

Campus grounds of South Dakota

University of South Dakota

Old Main was built in 1883, burned down in 1889, and was ultimately restored in 1997

University of South Dakota

Steve retraces his mom’s and other famous folks’ steps on the campus

Within the university campus is a hidden gem of South Dakota, the National Music Museum. We’d heard this was a wonderful museum, so we had to check it out.  My goodness, it took us half the day to peruse the amazing array of instruments on display in this collection!  This museum is worth a significant drive if you are interested in musical instruments at all.


The museum is renowned for its collection, which includes more than 15,000 American, European, and non-Western instruments from all cultures and historical periods.  They include many of the earliest, best preserved, and historically most important instruments known to exist.  The quality and scope of the NMM has earned it international recognition.  Here is just a sampling of what we enjoyed learning about:

Harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers, Antwerp, 1643

Harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers, Antwerp, 1643

Classic Guitars

Rare guitars made by Stradivari, D’Angelico, Martin, Gibson and Fender

Ceremony Drum from Alaska

Ceremonial drum with a three-pronged Caribou antler as a handle

The self-guided tour included free use of an iPod, which allowed us to hear the sounds made by many of the instruments, as well as to learn more about them.  Awesome tour!

Beede Gallery

The Beede Gallery showcases non-Western music that includes 240 exotic instruments from diverse cultures around the world

Conch Shell Trumpet

Conch Shell Trumpet – Tibet.  Can’t say we’ve seen this before!

All in all it was an amazing museum and really worth a stop!

We really enjoyed our visit with relatives, experiencing the charm of this part of the country, and seeing things we would have missed if we hadn’t detoured here.  A great pause before our trek into Iowa!

Next up:  Back on the road to Iowa!