This past weekend (Mon and Tues are my weekend) my parents drove over from Wisconsin and we went out to the Black Hills for a mini vacation. It was nice being able to spend more than just the day there then having to drive all the way back. It was also nice getting to see my parents again.
First stop was Custer State Park. I’d already done some of what there was to do here earlier this summer and wrote about it, but one thing I hadn’t managed was the southern wildlife loop, where the bison are located. We did that, and were not disappointed. A mother and baby pronghorn were nibbling grass on the side of the road and my parents got good pictures of it, we also had to stop for herd of bison crossing the road, which again made for a good photograph opportunity. I didn’t take any pictures of the wildlife myself because my phone camera has no zoom, but I’ll be getting pictures from my parents at some point and they’ll show up here eventually.
Compared to the very rocky and mountainous northern part of the park, the southern part has less trees and more fields, and the terrain is flatter and more forgiving. I can understand why the bison stay on this end, and it’s very interesting to see the transition from north to south.
After that we drove into Custer (the town) to eat a late lunch at Pizza Works which is located right along the main road, it was good pizza with a crispy crust and fresh toppings.
Next stop was Wind Cave. Not long ago I did a write up on Jewel Cave, the National Monument located to the west of Custer (the town). Wind Cave is a National Park, and is located just south of Custer State Park.
I was expecting the two caves to be pretty similar since they’re not located too far from each other and were both formed in essentially the same way – small cracks in the limestone layer located underneath a cap of sandstone were dissolved away into passages when the water table use to be much closer to the surface. They’re actually quite different though.
Where Jewel Cave is full of shining calcite crystals which give it it’s name, Wind Cave is famous for it’s boxwork, delicate ridges on the stone that crisscross each other like honeycomb. Wind Cave has 95% of all of the boxwork formations found in caves throughout the world.
It’s the smaller of the two caves, but still is among the top 10 longest caves in the world and like Jewel has yet to be fully explored. What makes it unique though is all 100 and some miles of passages of Wind Cave are crammed into one square mile of land. A map of the cave’s known tunnels are posted in the visitor’s center and it looks like a true labyrinth, with small passageways snaking out all over intersecting with each other. There is also only one natural entrance (an elevator was put int after it became a park) – I would have hated to have been an early explorer when the candle blew out.
Prices and tour offerings were very similar between the two. Both have a short easy tour for small children and the physically handicapped. Both have a candlelight tour, a very strenuous caving tour, and a more typical lighted tour. We did the Fairgrounds tour, which cost $9 and went about an hour and 45 minutes. It covered both upper and mid sections of the cave system (which look quite different) and had a lot of boxwork to ogle and some popcorn formations as well. Since it was pretty well lit unlike the candlelight tour I did of Jewel Cave, it was easier to get pictures.
Which was the better of the two? I can’t decide! They are both really neat caves. If you only have time to do one, I lean slightly in favor of Wind Cave because the boxwork really is a one-of-a-kind thing. If you have time to see both though, go see both just so that you can marvel at how different they are.
After that, we spent the night in Custer (the town), and the next morning went back to Custer (the park). My parents had never been on the Needles highway, and I was so enamored of it when I’d gone earlier in the season that I insisted we do it. I still can’t get over how gorgeous the Black Hills area is, the Badlands too in a very different way. I’m so grateful that I got stay in this part of the country this summer to see it all.
I already have a plan for the next time I head out this way. If I can manage it before the end of the season, I want to haul Cas out to the park and stay at Sylvan Lake Campground (in the Needles area) during my weekend and hike to the top of Harney Peak, the tallest point in South Dakota. It’s a 6 mile round trip hike which starts not far from the campground. It would be about the most perfect weekend I could imagine.
The trip ended at the Crazy Horse memorial, which I hadn’t been to in 14 years since our last family road trip out west.
In fourteen years, not much new detail work has been done, but a lot more rock has been blasted away from the mountain. The pace for completing Crazy Horse is slower than it could be (it’s a project 65 years in the making), because it relies entirely on private funding. The majority of the dollars for blasting come from tourists who visit the site and donate, and the gift and restaurant sales. Blasts happen on average once a week currently.
It’ll be magnificent when it’s completed. For a bit of perspective, all four of the Mount Rushmore faces can fit in Crazy Horse’s head. From top to bottom, once complete it’ll be taller than the Washington Monument. Maybe in 14 more years I’ll make it back out to see what it looks like then.
All in all, it was a fantastic weekend, especially coming off a 6 day week. Here at the Lodge the tourist season is in full gear, with the busiest point only a bit over 2 weeks away, when the world famous Sturgis motorcycle rally kicks off. I haven’t been minding how hectic it’s been though, I still stand my my earlier assessment that working with tourists on vacation is a lot more fun that any other sort of retail job I’ve held. I haven’t officially reviewed how good working at the Badlands is from a monetary standpoint, but that assessment is coming soon. In the meantime, safe travels and happy trails.