South Dakota (1st to 12th August 2010)


Custer City (1st & 2nd August 2010)


Our route into Custer takes us through the famous Black Hills of South Dakota. The forest is quite lush but there are signs of a bad forest fire. As we get near Custer the clouds have formed in to a dark thunder head. The Rocket Motel appears on our left in the quirky main street. It's a retro motel with original styled rooms from the 1950s but impeccably kept and very clean. We have a nice king bedroom. There are signs of the town gearing up for Sturgis week. As we park up it starts to rain and we stand under the porch of our room to watch the storm. The rain turns into hail the size of peas. There are big flashes of fork lightning and rumbling thunder. All of a sudden there is the loudest clap of thunder I have ever heard accompanied by a lightning flash. We both jump out of our skin. It sounds like it is right above our heads. Then the power goes out in the motel and down the street. Then a second one goes off just as loud. The storm lasts about 20 minutes and then the sun comes out. It's in the mid 80s. Crazy stuff! Evidently they get a lot of thunder storms here and the lightning triggers big forest fires.

At a bar one night we meet a local guy whose claim to fame is that he shot the biggest mountain lion hunted in South Dakota. There are a lot of deer here for them to eat so no fear of being attacked and there are no bears here either.

Baker's Bakery – we get a wonderful cooked breakfast here; pancakes, maple syrup, bacon, hash browns, scrambled eggs, sourdough toast and jam – mm mmmm! It's really reasonable too. Behind the counter they are selling the largest cinnamon rolls I have ever seen, they're the size of a squashed football.


Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Our second day in Custer we drive to Mount Rushmore, where the four presidents heads are carved in the mountainside. It is an amazing sight though it is difficult to get the real scale of the thing. We're too tight to pay the $10 fee to park at the visitor centre so we just get some photos from the roadside. At one point you can get the profile of the far left face poking out of the mountain side. A lot of people seem to be coming here like a pilgrimage. It must certainly renew your patriotism when you think of the work the sculptor put in to build it.


The Iron Mountain Road runs north towards Mt Rushmore from Custer State Park and is a must see road. It has famous narrow tunnels through the rocks that perfectly frame the view of Mount Rushmore. On some of the bends the road literally runs underneath itself under a wooden “pigtail” bridge. There are more bikes on the road now and the turn outs are pretty busy. Everyone is getting a buzz out of driving on this fabulous road.



Custer State Park (3rd to 5th August 2010)

Rich gets up at 5:50am to secure us a place in the Center Lake campground by phone. We start the drive in around 11:30am taking the 16 road into the park and pass by Stockade Lake. The road to the campground takes us on a bit of the Needles Highway with some nice sharp turns. A later trip on the rest of this famous road takes us through some crazy single lane tunnels dug through the rocks. There's some amazing scenery round here, with big grey rock formations sticking out of the ground and rolling forest. It reminds me of a few cowboy and Indian films where there are people lurking in the rocks shooting arrows at unsuspecting passersby.


The campground is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by ponderosa pine trees. Our pitch is large and the place is well spaced out. You are a long way from your neighbours. The downside of this site is there are only vault toilets, though the lower loop has proper showers you can drive over to. It slowly starts to fill up through the day.

The stars here are amazing. This area has a Class 1 mark for unpolluted skies.



Wildlife Loop Road

On a torrential rainy afternoon we stop by the Peter Norbeck visitor centre then take the Wildlife Loop Road round the park as it starts to clear up a bit. In the distance we can see the large bison herd the park owns. They round them up annually and sell some off to make money for the park. Further on we come across the famous burros (donkeys). They are not native here but are descendants from a herd that once hauled visitors to the top of the nearby Harney Peak. They were released in to the park when the rides were discontinued. They are very cute and big scroungers. A couple of them stick their noses right in to the car to see what we have to eat. We're mean and won't feed them, but one girl is giving them Pringles!

After seeing various pronghorn and mule deer, we spot some white tailed deer lurking in the woods. They are near a Prairie Dog town where we pull up to watch these cute characters. They are a bit like a large squirrelly ferret, with rusty coloured fur and little black tails. They give off a yipping noise that gives them the “dog” name. Some of them have fat tummies and sit around like little buddhas, eating. Rich gets some great photos of one digging near the road, with dirt all over his face and paws.

The next day we drive through this loop at dusk which is prime viewing time. There are so many deer around... pronghorns, white tailed and mule deer. On the hillside I spot three beautiful elk which I'm pleased about as the literature says it is very hard to see elk here in the summer.

The burros are dithering around in the road again, and a tiny foal stands in front of the car along with 10 children trying to pet it.

As we near the bison chaos ensues. They seem to all be trying to migrate over the road to the other side of the park. They are everywhere, standing around in front of cars, fighting and chasing each other. These are big beasts and it's a bit intimidating when they start fighting in front of your car. We get through the bulk of it and are almost clear when this enormous male, who has been growling and huffing about suddenly steps out in the road and parks himself a few inches from our front bumper. He glares at us as if to say “Now what are you gonna do?” He must be close to a ton in weight and we don't want to argue with him. We have to sit there for a while until he moves off a little and we can squeeze round his backside. It's a bit unnerving!


Wind Cave National Park

We take a convoluted route round the Wildlife Loop Road to get to the entrance of Wind Cave National Park. On the way we get some close encounters with bison by the roadside. The burros also hang about in the road and stick their noses in the car window again. There are more pronghorn hanging around so we get some better photos. As we drive in to Wind Cave the prairie opens out and the prairie dogs are abundant. It's great to watch them and listen to them barking at each other. The national park seems to have more deer and pronghorn too.

At the visitor centre we book on to the ranger-led Fairgrounds cave tour. It's 1.5 hours and you start by taking an elevator underground. The tour covers the upper and middle levels of Wind Cave. We see the famous Boxwork in the middle level (thin, honeycomb-shaped structures of calcite that protrude from the walls and ceilings). In the upper level, the trail winds through large rooms and into areas where you can see “popcorn” and “frostwork” formations. Although the caves cover an area of around a square mile they have already discovered around 100 miles of tunnels which they think is only 5% of what is down there. At one point the ranger turns off the lights and we sit and appreciate what total darkness looks like. After the tour we go and see the original natural entrance to the caves. It is a tiny hole, about 8” wide, and a strong wind blows from it (hence the name of the park). At times the wind can reach 75 miles an hour and literally blow your hat off!


Hot Springs and the Mammoth Fossil Site

The town of Hot Springs sits south of Wind Cave. It has some unusual Victorian buildings faced with rough hewn sandstone blocks. It looks like the town may have boomed in those times due to the railroad and the natural springs. It looks less prosperous now. There's a sign for a mammoth fossil site though, which sounds interesting so we take a look. In the 1970s a builder was digging a site for a housing estate when he came across some big fossilised bones. It turned out his site on a hill was actually an ancient sink hole and contained hundreds of mammoth fossils. He sold the land on to a private corporation of palaeontologists.

Around 27,000 years ago, the hole filled with water and had very steep shale sides. The mammoths, and other animals, were drawn to the lush grass round the water and then were unable to climb out so died of exhaustion. Over time sediment covered the bones and was compressed. The surrounding area eroded leaving the hill. It's a fascinating place to wander round. You can see whole mammoth skeletons in situ where they died trying to haul themselves out of the water. There are replica bones you can handle to get the scale of the animals. So far they have discovered around 58 mammoths, mostly Colombian but some Woolly. They still have at least another 40 feet to dig down to get to the bottom of the sink hole. They also found the skull of a short faced bear, an extinct bear that was around 6' at the shoulder (2' taller than a polar bear), long legged, with 5” long claws that all faced forwards like a cat. A scary beast!


Crazy Horse Memorial


This is the world's largest mountain carving and when completed will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long. Evidently, the whole of the Mt Rushmore carvings would fit in to the head area alone. Currently only the face of Crazy Horse is completed and millions of tons of rock have been blasted away to shape the rest of the carving.


Korczak Ziolkowski started the sculpture in 1948 and when he died in 1982 his family took over. It is solely funded by visitors and donations and not a federal project. Eventually there will be Native American cultural and education centres on the site. It's an amazing feat when you consider the scale and that the guy worked for years on his own with a small compressor and some sticks of dynamite.


Badlands National Park (6th & 7th August 2010)


Our route to Badlands from Custer takes us past some very barren grasslands and the odd cow here and there. A small town looms called Scenic so we stop in search of a sandwich. It's a tiny little place with a few buildings from 1905 serving up beer to bikers and a little street jail, and that's about it. One of the bars has the original sign saying “Indians allowed”. The road continues past the small town of Interior and through the entrance gate of Badlands.

The Badlands area was once roamed by the Lakota Indians before they got hoarded into reservations. We're very near Wounded Knee here where there was an infamous battle and massacre of many Lakota people. The bison were also hunted and slaughtered by the Europeans until they became extinct in the area. Bison, swift fox, bighorn sheep and black footed ferrets have since been reintroduced to the park.


Cedar Pass Campground


We drive to the Cedar Pass campground, part of the lodge run by Forever Resorts. It is an open camp with barely a tree. Each pitch has a table with a sun shade over it; thinking it could get pretty hot here! We find a pitch with a cottonwood tree shading it, but as Rich walks up to the table thousands of grasshoppers rise up out of the grass and are all over the table. Not nice! The next pitch along could possibly get the morning shade from the tree and has slightly less of these critters so we set up there. It's nearing 90'f already and it's only 11am.

I drive back to the entry gate to pay the camping fee and a grasshopper kindly sits on my bare knee on the way back with his scratchy little feet digging in me. A lot of them seem to be getting sexy with each other; it must be the time of year! I hope they don't eat through our tent material. The sun is fierce and burning here.

Badlands Loop Road


We decide to do a few short walks one morning while it's only 80'f. We get on the north east section of the Badlands loop Road and visit the Cliff Shelf nature trail where we see an enormous black and yellow spider with thick legs. He has a pattern on his back like an alien and looks scary.

Further north we do a couple of short trails that give us an overlook of the sparse badlands. These are the Door trail and the Window trail. It's way too warm to walk too far but we sit at an overlook and take in the peace and quiet. The place reminds us a little of Bryce Canyon in Utah, but without the vivid red rock.

The rocks here are mostly creamy sandstone, interspersed with horizontal layers of pink rock and in some places, yellow. They literally pop out of the prairie and make up what is known as the “Wall”. We double back and get on the main Loop Road. After a stop off at the Fossil Exhibit Trail, which explains that this area is an old sea bed so rich in fossils, we drive the whole road on to the gravel section.

The overlooks are stunning. At one we see a massive family of wild turkeys crossing the road. There must have been about 20 little ones, and 3 adults. There are lots of Prairie Dog towns all along the route as we get to the flatter grasslands. In the distance is a very large bison.


Dark Skies of Badlands


In the evening we go to the Ranger led night sky programme at the amphitheatre. This area has really clear dark skies and the view is amazing. The Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon like a cloud. The constellations are all visible. We see Sagittarius for the first time. It is also known as the Little Teapot and the “spout” points at the black hole of our galaxy. The rangers have three telescopes set up so we get to see two star clusters and the Andromeda galaxy.




Close to Badlands is the town of Wall. This place is definitely on the bikers' route. A family set up a drug store many years ago and it has expanded and turned into a big Wild West tourist attraction called Wall Drug. The Main Street is heaving and we have a quick wander through the little shops, stuffed animals and original bits and pieces that filled the drug store. There are trains of bikes going past, with over 20 bikers in each. The Sturgis Bike Rally has kicked off now. The temperature is nearly at 100'f.

South Dakota continues at Sturgis Bike Rally... next page....