Surprised by South Dakota – 9/13/14 – 9/23/14

Mount Rushmore, Keystone, SD

Mount Rushmore, Keystone, SD

Really Surprised! I was looking forward to this stop because Mt. Rushmore was the last big landmark on my list to see, but I had no idea how much more this area had to offer. It all started with the perfect place to stay to explore the Black Hills and surrounding area, Hart Ranch in Rapid City (thanks Bob for the great recommendation!). There are dozens of RV parks in this area making it hard to know what is best, so we really lucked out having this great spot. This place was a member park, but since it was the offseason, they had space for us and at a great rate of $32/night. Sites were roomy, onsite restaurant, cheap laundry, very clean, secure, friendly staff and above all centrally located to everything we wanted to see.   We originally booked 5 nights here and wondered if there would be enough to fill our time, but we extended not once, but twice, for a total of 11 nights. The weather couldn’t have been better, sunny and in the 70’s/80’s most of the time; it had snowed here just a week prior.   I think this area was our biggest surprise of the whole trip, a combination of Utah for unique landscape, Grand Canyon for the awe factor and Yellowstone for wildlife. And, I must hand it to their Visitor’s Association! The guides and marketing materials were very well laid out and easy to use. They had several scenic drives outlined that connected all of the sites and made planning our days more manageable. We saw quite a bit here, but also had some very relaxing days. I loved being in one spot for this long, so we could just settle in and have our ‘home’ setup. The nature of this trip is such that we are on the move a lot and when we have the chance to put down some roots, it really does make a difference.

Beautiful scenery everywhere!

Beautiful scenery everywhere!

Here are the highlights of our time here:

Deadwood
This was a cool town that the HBO show was based on, reminiscent of the gold rush of 1876 and Wild Bill Hickok. It was basically a one-street town set in a valley with steep hills on either side, full of saloons and gambling halls. It was Sunday when we were there, so we both had our Seahawks gear on. We watched the Hawks lose to San Diego over appies and a few beers, then decided to try our luck at the tables. Most of the casinos were strictly slots, but we did find a few with tables. 3-card was very popular here, so we sat down at a $2 table with a crew of locals. It’s amazing how much longer you can play when the minimums aren’t $10. Mike actually hit a few good hands to balance out my losing ones and we walked out even for the night. Always a victory when gambling. This town was really fun, a bit touristy, but made for a great day. We missed their annual brew fest by one day, darn.

Downtown Deadwood

Downtown Deadwood

Sturgis
The annual Sturgis Rally had taken place about a month ago, and apparently the weather was pretty bad for them. Next year they are expecting close to a million bikers for the 75th Anniversary. While we were there, it was just another town, actually quite small, but obvious that they cater to bikers. We didn’t go to the Motorcycle Museum/Hall of Fame, as that really isn’t our thing. Instead we just walked around, there was an outdoor moto-cross event going on through the streets, which was kind of interesting. We stopped in at Knuckle Brewing Company for a local beer, then got on our way. I can only imagine how crazy this place would be for the rally.

One of the MANY biker bars in Sturgis

One of the MANY biker bars in Sturgis

Custer State Park
This was one of our favorites and we visited multiple times. The entrance fee was good for a week, which was nice and the location of the park was such that we drove through it many times on our way to other places. There were three spectacular scenic roads throughout the park that were equally amazing, but all unique. The diversity of this park was what made it special, from rolling prairie lands to dense forest to steep granite “needles” towering toward the sky. Iron Mountain Road had many pigtail bridges and narrow one-way tunnels framing Mount Rushmore. The roads were switchbacks at times and showcased lush scenery all around with the fall colors starting to turn. On the Wildlife Loop Road, the animals were the highlight, hello Buffalo! There are over 1,200 buffalo that roam freely in the park, one of the largest herds anywhere. We saw many throughout the park in one’s or two’s, but on this road, there were hundreds of them. We also saw Burros; they had no shame and came right up to the car window. I think people feed them, so they were looking for some treats. We didn’t think the drive could get any better, until we hit the narrow and curvy section call the Needles Highway. We went from lowland prairie to steep twisty roads that took us to the top of the tree line. We weren’t sure what the ‘needles’ referred to until we came around a corner and there were these tall rock sphere/pinnacles just popping up out of nowhere.  We were amazed at how much the landscape and elevation changed in this park

One of the many bridges along Iron Mountain Road

One of the one-way narrow bridges along Iron Mountain Road, nice view huh?

Wildlife Loop Road, my Tatanka impression.  Dances with Wolves was filmed here

Wildlife Loop Road, my Tatanka impression. Dances with Wolves was filmed here.

The Needles!

The Needles!

The drive through the Needles was gorgeous

The drive through the Needles was gorgeous

We loved this one of the rock balances between two needles

We loved this one of the rock balancing

Our di

The Fall Colors were starting to come out

Crazy Horse Memorial
This attraction is known as the world’s largest mountain carving in progress and is a memorial to honor the culture of the North American Indian people. The sculptor started in 1948 and I bet it is only about 5% complete. I’m not sure they will ever finish, but it was very impressive and I think the allure is that it is an ongoing project that is constantly changing. Family members and supporters are continuing the project to ultimately create a statue that will be 641 ft long and 563 ft high. The face of Crazy Horse was completed in 1998 at 88 ft tall and they are now focusing on the 219 ft horse’s head. They operate solely on private donations and visitor entrance fees (no public funding), so I’m sure that it why it is a slow go. The surrounding visitor center was impressive and full of native art and history.

Crazy Horse Monument

Crazy Horse Memorial, the head is finished and you can see the outline of the horse that they will start on soon

This is a scale of what the finished product will look like

This is a model of what the finished product will look like.  Cool to compare it to the actual sculpture in the background (they have a long ways to go!)

Badlands National Park
We had to drive about 90 minutes east to get to the park, but worth it! We entered through the NE entrance and were able to use our annual pass to save us the entrance cost. Immediately there was a pullout that showcased this amazing scenery. It just dropped down into a hole, kind of like the Grand Canyon, with sheer cliffs all around. The colors of the walls were striped due to the minerals in the stone, making for jaw dropping views. A perfect description from the park brochure was “a striking landscape featuring a maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires.” We continued to another spot and did a hike out along what looked liked sharp pinnacles rising up from the canyon floor. From afar it looked like people were standing on narrow ledges, but once you got out there, the landscape had shallower little valleys to get around on. It felt a bit like walking on the moon. The heat really started to intensify and we were both cooking. After the hike, we continued by car along the scenic drive through the park and pulled out at many scenic points, my favorite being the Yellow Mounds. The colors were awesome. As we headed out of the park, we took another side road and bam, we saw Bighorn Sheep and Buffalo. We stopped at Wall Drug on the way out and it was kind of a dud. Basically a lot of trinkets and trash, but had to stop at this iconic place that I had always heard about.  We really liked this National Park, it seems a bit underrated for the spectacular scenery that it has!

Our first glimpse reminded us of the Grand Canyon

Badlands National Park. Our first glimpse reminded us of the Grand Canyon

Mike on top of the world!

Mike on top of the world!

The contrast of a deep canyon and grasslands was

The contrast of deep canyons and grasslands was very unique

Hiking on top of the canyon pinnacles

Hiking on top of the canyon pinnacles

My favorite was the "Yellow Mounds"

My favorite was the “Yellow Mounds”

Mount Rushmore
We saw this iconic attraction multiple times on our stay here, but the best was my first glimpse. We were driving up the hill out of Keystone and there it was off in the distance as we rounded a corner. I think I said to Mike, “that is so cool!” Something I had seen so many times in print or on screen and now to see in person was pretty spectacular.   We saw it many more times from different viewpoints while in the car, but the day we actually went into the monument was pretty awesome.   We got there around 8am and so glad we made the effort to get there early before the masses/tour buses, plus the light was better so that the faces weren’t shadowed. We had the viewing area pretty much to ourselves. We did the walk around the Presidential Trail for the most up-close view available and Mike was a photo-taking fool. He got some great shots! What struck me the most I think is how realistic the carvings were, pretty impressive considering the tools and resources the artists had back in the 1920/30’s to sculpt at such a massive scale in granite. I am baffled how they kept their perspective while carving so up close for something so huge.

Avenue of the Flags at Mount Rushmore

Avenue of the Flags at Mount Rushmore

Photobombed by George, Tom, Teddy and Abe!

Photobombed by George, Tom, Teddy and Abe!

Close up of Honest Abe

Close up of Honest Abe

A cool side view of George from the backside of the monument

A cool side view of George from the backside of the monument

Wind Cave National Park
The day we drove to this park, we weren’t sure what to expect. We got to the park and the only way to see the caves was to pay for the $12 tour. We typically prefer to explore on our own, but we figured since we drove all the way to see it, we should go for it. And, so glad we did. It was like nothing I have ever seen before or experienced. It is one of the nation’s oldest parks (7th), becoming part of the park system in 1903. The cave system is approximately one square mile with over 140 miles of explored passages and growing as they continue to explore and map. The Park Ranger told us to imagine it as a cube with multiple levels of passages within it. The tour was about 75 minutes and well worth it. There was a concrete path with handrails and lit areas showcasing the walls. Our tour took us through narrow, low walkways, then into larger “rooms.” The walls and ceilings were full of boxwork and popcorn formations which are very rare and only found here and in some cave system in Europe. We were both so impressed with the tour and blown away by this unique park.

This only natural opening to the caves. This is where the original explorers entered.

The only natural opening to the caves. This is where the original explorers entered (very small!)

Inside the Cave!

Inside the Cave!

Mike and I inside one of the larger "rooms"

Mike and I inside one of the larger “rooms”

The rare and fragile boxwork that covered the ceilings

The rare and fragile boxwork that covered the ceilings

Hiking
One day, we ventured back to Custer State Park for a hike we had seen on our earlier drive. We did about a 3-mile hike up toward Little Devil Tower with spectacular views of Harney Peak. This is the state’s highest elevation point at 7,242 feet. There was a route to the top, but it was considered strenuous and we weren’t up for it on this hot day. The one we did was a gradual uphill climb, moderate, but felt about right for our current condition level. Since it was the off-season, we saw few other people, which is a refreshing change from other hikes we have done that are packed.

Happy Hikers!

Happy Hikers!

Great scenery on our hike in Custer State Park

Great scenery on our hike in Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake
This was a hidden gem that we found on our exploration of Custer State Park. It is a man-made lake with a nice loop trail around that we walked and really enjoyed the peaceful setting. There was even a wedding taking place on the shore while we were there. A pretty sweet spot!

Picturesque Lake Sylvan

Picturesque Sylvan Lake

Taking it all in!

Taking it all in!

Golf
There was a golf course affiliated with our campground, just about a mile down the road. We drove by it often and it never seemed too busy. We hadn’t golfed for months, so it was a nice break for us from the sightseeing. We were able to go out just the two of us, which I loved and we weren’t rushed at all. Neither one of us golfed that well and by the time we got off the course it was toasty and we were a bit overheated. But, worth it and the setting of the course was beautiful.

Mike matched the Fall Colors!

Mike matched the Fall Colors!

Wildlife
By far, we saw the most wildlife here than we have seen at any other place we have been. We saw mule and white tailed deer daily, more Buffalo (Tatanka) than you can imagine, Pronghorn, Burro, Bighorn Sheep, Coyote, and my personal favorite, the very cute Prairie Dog.

This Bighorn Sheep was not intimidated by us at all

This Bighorn Sheep was not intimidated by us at all

Prairie Dogs on high alert with a coyote on the prowl

Prairie Dogs on high alert with a coyote on the prowl

This Tatanka was just hanging out in a nearby RV Park

This Tatanka was just hanging out in a nearby RV Park

The Burro came right up to the car

The Burro came right up to the car

We saw countless deer

We saw countless deer

We had a great Seahwaks Sunday, watching them beat Denver in OT. The game was a bit stressful, but beings that we are in Bronco territory, it was a sweet victory! We were also able to get a much-needed MoHo wash from a great local company, Pro Wash and found a guy to create a personalized sign for the MoHo! One other random tidbit…of all the places we have been so far, we have seen more RV’s here than anywhere else we have been. It is cheap and easy to license here (you only have to stay one night in the state before you can claim residency), so we know that many fellow MoHo’ers take advantage of this and register in SD where there is also no sales tax. This was a great stop for us, and the furthest west we have been in a long time. It definitely felt like we were closer to home, even had a Safeway! Next up is Nebraska and starting to head eastbound and Central Time.

Our tailgating setup for the big game - notice our new flag!

Our tailgating setup for the big game – notice our new flag!

Here's our new sign!

Here’s our new sign!

For many more amazing pics of this area, click HERE

3 thoughts on “Surprised by South Dakota – 9/13/14 – 9/23/14

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