Black Hills and White Men

Continuing west from the Badlands, we came to the Black Hills region of South Dakota. Starkly different from the arid, rocky landscape of the Badlands, the Black Hills have lush forests and plenty of opportunities to see wildlife.

We started our visit with a tour of Bear Country, a drive-through zoo where the animals roam relatively freely and are often just outside your car window. The tour ends with a more traditional zoo area where the smaller animals and the baby bears are housed.

So that she could see, Emelie got to sit on Mamma’s lap in the car and share a seat belt. 

Mountaingoatenous: adj. having properties or characteristics of a mountain goat.

This guy was pacing back and forth across the entrance to the bear area. The sign says, “Drive slowly but keep moving. The bear will move.”

Ok last zoo animal picture for today, I promise. We watched this little cub climb all the way to the top of this tall skinny tree. I wonder how he got down!

We all enjoyed it, particularly Emelie, but we may have chosen not to go if we had known how many animals we’d encounter for free in the wild, but equally close to our car, during our time in the Black Hills. Deer, buffalo, prairie dogs, and lots and lots of turkeys all crossed our path as we drove.


The buffalo cross the street wherever and whenever they like

After a picnic lunch at the Bear Country zoo, we went to Mount Rushmore. It was somehow fitting to be in such a patriotic location on September 11. It’s an unusual feeling to go to such an iconic place – a landmark seen in pictures and movies for so long, then suddenly there it is before your eyes. We happened to be just in time for a guided tour along the Presidential Trail and it was fascinating to learn the history and to see the carvings from different angles.


Quick pose with George, Tom, Ted and Abe

One of the things we learned is about how the pupils of their eyes are carved to capture the light at just the right angle to give the impression that the presidents are looking at you.

Who cares about the tour? It’s nap time!

As an aside, I have been so impressed by the park rangers of the National Park Service along our journeys. They are so knowledgeable and genuinely passionate about sharing what they know and helping others love the national parks as much as they do.

On our second day in the Black Hills, we decided to check out one more national park, namely Wind Cave. There are a lot of unique things about Wind Cave, but it gets its name from the wind created as it strives to balance the pressure within with the external pressure conditions. Depending on whether there’s a high or low pressure system in the area, there’s either wind blowing into the cave or out of it. The cave is also filled with a unique geological structure called “box work” that’s only found in Wind Cave and another cave in the Czech Republic somewhere.

Emelie was very excited about going down into a cave until she understood that it was going to be somewhat dark. She was very uncertain as we first descended into the cave, and asked to be carried “like a baby” – not an easy feat through narrow cave passages. She adjusted, though, and the rest of the people in our tour group of 40 were so great to keep encouraging her. In the end, we all had a great time! Wind Cave is far from the most popular attraction to see in western South Dakota, but we would highly recommend it.Inside the Wind Cave

Starting to feel a little more comfortable (i.e. willing to be put down!) Emelie wanted her picture taken with this light. 

Family photo… plus that guy. 

We decided to skip the Crazy Horse monument. It’s expensive for what it is – $10 per person to see an unfinished carving similar to Mount Rushmore that will one day depict the Native American leader Crazy Horse. We appreciate that admissions revenues are how they’re able to fund their project, but we were all pretty tired after a long day, so we only drove by and got a glimpse from the road.

Good luck, Crazy Horse! Hope you get a body some day!

Choosing a different way back to our campsite, we found ourselves driving on the Needles Highway, which was a fun and beautiful drive, but perhaps not worth the $15 park pass we needed to get to drive through Custer State Park for those 20 minutes. Oh well. The most exciting part of the Needles Highway drive was not the unique rock formations, but rather this one narrow pass, carved out of the mountain and only wide enough for one vehicle. As we had come about ¾ of the way through it, the driver of a large van apparently decided he was tired of waiting for traffic coming from our direction and he was just going to force his way through. We had no choice but to back out through the narrow passageway (glad I wasn’t driving!) and try to get out of the way. This drew a small crowd of spectators and in the end, a few members of a motorcycle gang started directing traffic. If they hadn’t we would have been stuck there for a long time. It was quite a sight, but I guess they were intimidating enough that people did what they said!

Cool tunnel. Wouldn’t want to meet oncoming traffic!

Oh, Hello Mr. Impatient Van Driver

After three nights in the Black Hills, we packed up our camper and left South Dakota behind us. The state that wasn’t even on our original itinerary had so much to offer that we spent a wonderful week exploring it.

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