Bison, Burros, and a Beautiful Place

We drove the wildlife loop in Custer State Park on August 1

wildlife loop Custer State ParkThe history of the Black Hills, as with many other places in the west, is marked by the discovery of gold.  As a sacred place to the Sioux, prior to the white man, its unwritten history extends far into the past.  The pivotal shift, however, was in the summer of 1874 when Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer discovered gold near the present day town of Custer City.  Even though the land belonged to the Plains Indians, under the Treaty of 1868, thousands of gold seekers poured into the area and illegally occupied the newly discovered mountains of gold.  But that is another story. Sad, controversial, and horrendous. 

buffalo on the wildlife loop Custer State ParkBy 1897, when Custer State Park was first established as South Dakota’s first state park, Congress granted sections sixteen and thirty-six of each South Dakota township to be used for schools and other public purposes. The parcels, scattered throughout the Black Hills timberlands, were difficult to manage and in 1906, the state began negotiations to exchange the scattered parcels for a solid block of land. In 1910, South Dakota relinquished all rights to 60,000 acres of land within the Black Hills Forest Reserve in exchange for 50,000 acres in Custer County and 12,000 acres in Harding County. In 1912, these two parcels of land were designated as Custer State Forest, and later became Custer State Park.

wildlife loop Custer State ParkNow, with more than 71,000 acres of protected land, the park is the second largest state park in the country. Now the park is home to a healthy herd of more than 1,300 buffalo, but in 1900 it was estimated that less than 1,000 bison remained on the entire continent.  Peter Norbeck, “The Father of Custer State Park”, saw the seriousness of the issue and took action by purchasing 36 bison to start the herd at the park.  By the 1940’s, the herd had swelled to more than 2,500 and the parks rangelands were beginning to show the effects of overgrazing.

Now there is an annual roundup, held in late September, where the bison are herded into the Buffalo Corrals and the size and structure of the herd are adjusted according to the predicted availability of grassland forage. Although much of the park is forested, and the day before we had traveled through the winding roads of the Needles area, the southern portion of the park, with its wide open gorgeous rangeland truly caught my heart.  Ungrazed by cattle, the native grasses are still dominant, punctuated by islands of forested hills and drainages lined with cottonwoods and elms. 

Nancy and Roger at Custer State ParkWe started our day before 8am, hoping that we would see more wildlife by leaving a bit earlier.  The wildlife loop that leads south from 16A is only 18 miles long, but I could have happily spent the entire day just wandering the narrow roads looking at the buffalo, laughing at the burros, taking photos of wildflowers and enjoying open rangeland that seemed to look much as it might have looked before that fateful day in 1874.

Sue and Mo, with stampeding buffalo behind us!We encountered our first group of animals even before we left the main highway, and the fuzzy photo of Mo and I is due to the complexity of trying to get a shot while a motorcyclist sped through the intersection, spooking the buffalo into a charge across the pavement.  They can move amazingly fast!  Crazy tourists!

Once south on the wildlife loop, however, the landscape opened up, and we encountered several different groups along the roadway.  They are amazing animals.  Relatively docile by nature, they can also be unpredictable and there are numerous warnings in the park to this effect.  Most of the calves are born in May, with most cows having a single calf.  Buffalo can live to 40 years, with an average lifespan of 25.  They need little care, with instincts for survival that cattle seem to lack.  They can survive brutal winter storms and at times care for their young in sub-zero blizzards.

Day 11 Custer SP and Custer CityA few miles south on the wildlife loop is a beautiful small visitor center, another lovely building crafted by the men of the CCC.  A large group of buffalo were grazing around the center and the volunteer inside laughed with me and said, “Please don’t ask where the buffalo are!”.  I guess that is the most often asked question and much of the time the buffalo.

The buffalo aren’t the only treasure along the route, however, with pronghorns, mule deer, whitetail deer, mountain goats, elk, coyotes, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, many birds, and burros calling the park home.  The burros aren’t native in the Black Hills but were used to haul visitors to the top of Harney Peak in the early days of the park.  The rides were discontinued and the burrow were released into the park where they have become an undeniable well loved visitors attraction.

Day 11 Custer SP and Custer City1We were tickled to find the burros along the southern portion of the loop, and of course have the requisite photos of sweet and silly burro faces reaching into our car windows looking for treats.  We didn’t give them any, so they eventually ambled on.  I especially enjoyed a young colt who laid his ears back and pointed his back end toward the car.  Mo was a bit worried that we might end up with a scar on the Tracker!  I noticed that the young ones were a lot more wary of the cars and people than the older tourist- adults.

Day 11 Custer SP and Custer City2In addition to the animals, we found several areas of summer wildflowers, including the bush morning glory which has an amazing taproot that can be as much as eighteen inches! in diameter and four feet long. We also saw a beautiful bluestem pricklypoppy, an plant that animals carefully avoid because of its harsh spines and unpalatable juices.  Leadplant, found throughout the prairie, is nutritious for livestock and prairie Indians made a delicious tea from the leaves.

time for a swim break at Stockade Lake on Highway 16AFinally returning to Highway 16 via HWY 87, we continued west to the town of Custer.  Reading the brochures, we thought the Woodworking Museum might be an interesting “attraction” to try out. With Roger and Nancy in their own car with Jackson and us in the Tracker with Abby, it worked out well for visiting areas that didn’t allow dogs, since we could take turns watching our pets.  The Woodworking Museum was nice, interesting, and something you don’t see every day, but I’m not sure it was something I would chose to do again. 

we are all happy to eat outside togetherWe drove back into the town of Custer and found a great little spot for lunch where the food was really great, the service was wonderful, and the dogs were welcome.  The Cattleman’s restaurant is touted in the tour books but when I saw the patio I swerved into the Frontier Grill, a place that looked a bit more like a biker bar than a restaurant.  Jackson isn't so sure about this oneWhat a great choice!  We then walked around town with the dogs, enjoyed more dog friendly art galleries and shops, took photos of the wonderful art buffalos around town, and topped off the afternoon with ice cream from the Purple Pie Palace, in spite of the long lines.

I wanted to see the Crazy Horse Memorial, and it was a top choice on my list, but by the time we drove north to the memorial, the two hour time commitment and $10 dollar per person fee, and the worry about the dogs again was just too much and the group consensus was to view the memorial from a distance.  I took some distant photos, felt sad that it worked out this way, but realized that sometimes I just have to adjust.

Crazy Horse memorial from the highwaySince I didn’t get there, here is the website for something that other bloggers have called the best thing to see in the Black Hills, and here is the mission statement of the foundation:

The mission of Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation is to protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of the North American Indians. The Foundation demonstrates its commitment to this endeavor by continuing the progress on the world’s largest sculptural undertaking by carving a memorial of Lakota leader Crazy Horse; by providing educational and cultural programming; by acting as a repository for American Indian artifacts, arts and crafts through the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational & Cultural Center; and by establishing and operating the Indian University of North America and, when practical, a medical training center for American Indians.

Map Custer SP Wildlife Loop

The Black Hills Work Their Magic

beautiful Black HillsI guess I really didn’t know what to expect.  I knew that the Hills were considered one of the most sacred places on earth to the Sioux tribes.  I also know that the Black Hills are an extremely popular place for tourists to do all sorts of tourist things, with “attractions’ rivaling almost anyplace in the US.  I know that there are those who think of Rushmore as a beautiful, patriotic monument to our country and it’s history, and others who are appalled by the whole idea of carving faces into a wild mountain. I can see both sides, but either way,  I liked seeing Mt Rushmore and I like the story of its creation and its creator.

double tunnel on the Iron Mountain RoadBut this morning as we drove west from the Heartland RV Campground into the southern end of the Black Hills, it was only minutes before the landscape began to reach down and touch something deep. The part that made this place sacred to the Sioux had absolutely nothing to do with sculptures or attractions.  Mo and I kept commenting on how incredibly green it was, after the dry prairies.  Green and yet somehow open.  We were traversing Highway 36, east of Custer State Park entrance, and the valley was broad and dotted with homes here and there, and little roads that wandered off seductively.

a little bit better view of Mt RushmoreWe had an agenda, however, and with only two days to explore this part of the country, there wasn’t time to follow the seductive roads and go hunting for ghost towns of a bygone era.  Roger and Nancy and their dog Jackson were following Mo and Abby and I as we explored.  It was impossible to fit 4 adults and two dogs into either of our cars for the day trip we had planned, but we had our trusty little handheld CB’s to keep us communicating. 

still, an amazing bit of sculptureThe magic of the Black Hills I think is largely a result of its amazing geology.  Rising from the plains like a green island oasis, these hills are formed from some of the oldest rock on earth, a batholith of slowly cooling magma created granite filled with crystals of rose quartz and mica.  Eons later the dome was surrounded by huge inland seas that eventually turned to fossil filled limestone and allowed the formation of some of the longest known caves on the planet. The Miocene Era brought tropical conditions that created red shales and sandstones at the edge of the island.  Within Custer State Park is Mt Harney, at more than 7,000 feet the highest peak between the Rockies and the Alps! 

nope, don't need to do itThere are several roads to Mt Rushmore, but we chose to drive the Iron Mountain Road first toward Keystone and then after passing the monument, we would continue the loop to Sylvan Lake and back down to Highway 36 and home.  The biggest surprise was actually how small it all seemed.  I guess sometimes as westerners we are used to the vastness of our mountain ranges and deserts, and this island of rock and green didn’t seem nearly as big as I expected it to be.

see that speck on top of Harney Mountain?The forest is mostly Ponderosa Pine, with some of the cooler areas filled with Black Hills spruce.  With pine beetle ravaging the forest, the park is actively managing to try to reduce the damage and danger in addition to creating good conditions for the restoration of the hardwood forests that are being encroached on by the pine.  Much as juniper encroaches on grasslands in the west, the pines take over the hardwood forests when there isn’t any natural thinning process allowed.  Our relationship with the natural fire cycles in the western forests in changing, but it is hard to let fires burn every 20 years or so when they would destroy all those houses that we now have in the middle of the forest.

Black Hills days are accompanied by the sound of road thunderThe Iron Mountain road is only a few miles long, but it is winding and twisty, steep, and punctuated with tight, low tunnels and curved bridges.  It was an exciting drive, made more so by the sound of thunderous motorcycles all along the way.  The Black Hills are famous for lots of reasons, and the big Sturgis Motorcycle Rally held the first week in August is definitely one of them.  Of course, even with the rally another week away, the area is filled with bikers from all over the country, and probably from other countries as well. 

day 10_083DSC_0083We did know that the actual Mt Rushmore monument area was a huge concession charging $11.00 to park (no senior park pass honored) and see the walk of flags, to read about the carving of the faces, to see it all up a bit more closely.  None of us really cared to do all that, and decided early that we would bypass the visitor center in favor of the great views through the tunnels and from high vantage points along the highway. I must say that as we passed the bumper to bumper backed up traffic trying to enter the parking lot we were incredibly glad that we had made that decision!

kayaks unloaded and ready for some paddling after our picnicThis morning, we had started our day with a big leisurely camping breakfast, and somehow didn’t think to pack a picnic for the rest of the day.  Yeah, I know…what were we thinking??  We decided to try to find groceries in Keystone, but that was funny, and after driving through the Disneyesque town from one end to the other, we were relegated to a gas station food stop, where they told us the nearest groceries were 11 miles away.  Picnic fare turned out to be a couple of apples, some orange juice, and string cheese, which was just fine. Mo and I were tired of eating anyway…seriously….the last week has been filled with way too much food!

Sylvan Lake and granite rock formationsAfter we threaded our way past all the cars trying to get into the monument visitor center, we continued west toward Horsethief Lake, thinking we might stop there for a doggie swim or a walk.  The traffic was a bit daunting, and from what we could see from the road, that little lake wasn’t very inviting. Instead, we decided to continue on to Sylvan Lake.  I recently re-read Sherry’s blog about their visit to this area last fall and decided that Sylvan Lake would be worth taking the kayaks down from the top of the car.

Roger and Nancy in our kayaks on Sylvan LakeAgain, once we actually arrived, I was surprised at how small it was.  The traffic was tight, the parking lots almost full, but we managed to find a spot close to the water, and after a bit of waiting we even found an open picnic table under a shady tree.  The sun was brilliant, the skies were perfectly blue, and the crowds didn’t seem to be much of a problem either, once we settled in.  Taking turns by pairs in the kayaks worked out perfectly, and the four of us with our two dogs spent the rest of a beautiful afternoon enjoying one of the prettier places we have seen lately..

Sylvan LakeThere were lots of kids swimming and climbing on rocks and sunning and diving into the cool water.  The lake is surrounded by vertical granite pinnacles, and it seemed that no matter where you looked, there would be a kid or two silhouetted against the sky high on a rounded dome.

the eye of the needleAs the afternoon wore on, we decided it was time to make our way home and we loaded up the kayaks, the dogs, turned on the radios and continued southeast along the Needles Highway.  In no time, we were once again on an incredibly narrow road and were going through even more narrow tunnels until suddenly we were at something called “The Eye of the Needle” and cars were parked in all directions and jammed up waiting for a turn to get through the smallest tunnel of all.  Mo and I saw several mirrors almost scrape the walls of the tunnel on some of the bigger vehicles coming through.  That thing is tiny!!  We were really glad we were in small cars and even then I worried about the kayaks.

day 10_120DSC_0120The Needles part of Custer State Park is fascinating and gorgeous, and there are even some turnouts where you could enjoy the views, but with all the traffic we weren’t too inclined to stop.  Farther down the road we saw a Dall sheep, and then a lone buffalo who refused to even raise his head while folks crawled by snapping his photo.  I would love to come to this place sometime when it wasn’t quite so full of cars and people because it really IS beautiful. But that is the part that was expected, the traffic and the people and the hot weather.  After all, it IS late July in one of the most popular places in the west and of course I knew what to expect. 

stormy skies coming on the Needles HighwayWhat I didn’t know is how truly lovely the granite spires would be or just how breathtaking the views and how fresh that dry pine air would smell.  We ended the drive with a visit to the visitor center built by the CCC, one more marvel of amazing workmanship and stately beauty.  The CCC employed 29,000 workers just from South Dakota and contributed more than 6 million dollars to the local economy.  I’ll not get political here, but every single one of us here in the US benefits from the beautiful work of the CCC.

By the time we got back to camp, the skies were looking stormy and the winds were coming up enough to make opening the doors to our  rigs a bit challenging.  Roger grilled chicken and Nancy and I made a big salad and we convened at their roomy table for four to enjoy our dinner protected from the crazy winds.  No time to enjoy the swimming pool tonight.

Tomorrow we will be off to a different part of Custer State Park, and instead of a lake day, it will be somewhat of a town day as we explore Custer and some of those “attractions” that I mentioned earlier.

Our little day trip loop around the hills was a short and curvy 75 miles of fun.  A is Hermosa, B is Keystone, and C is Sylvan Lake

Map of Black Hills Day Trip