Black Hills Bound
Written by Jamie
Our next destination was the Black Hills of South Dakota, which is about an hour and a half drive from Badlands NP. After 4 days of boondocking in basically the middle of nowhere, it was a nice change of pace to drive through Rapid City in the foothills of the Black Hills. We decided to find a place to park the trailer, grab a yummy breakfast at Tally’s Silver Spoon, and catch the matinee showing of Captain America: The Winter Soldier at the local movie theater.
As you leave Rapid City heading west, you drive right into some beautiful mountain scenery! We weren’t exactly sure what we were going to do for the next few days or where we were going to stay, but we were happy to be in the mountains. We eventually found ourselves in the town of Custer at Custer’s Gulch Campground where we booked the next 3 nights. We couldn’t help but notice that everyone there had really awesome RV setups, towing tricked out ATVs, Jeeps, etc. Apparently the Black Hills are an off-roaders paradise! There were a lot of options for ATV and other off-road rentals, but sadly all were a little outside our budget.
After doing some research, I learned that the nearby Wind Cave National Park offered a Wild Cave Tour, a 4-hour spelunking experience that takes visitors off the normal walking cave tours and into some of the tight crevices of Wind Cave. Naively thinking that maybe this wasn’t a super popular tour, I called to see if we could book 2 spots on a tour sometime in the next few days, and the park ranger kindly told me that the first tour of the season was the next day, that most of the tour slots for the season were already booked nearly 6 months in advance, but that the next day’s tour had 1 slot left, and he could put 1 of us on a waiting list in case anyone cancelled. We’ll take it!
So, the next morning we prepared as if we were going on a cave tour and headed out to Wind Cave NP, with the understanding that if one of us didn’t get on the tour, neither of us would go and would instead explore the other areas of the park. Luck stuck in our favor, and just as we were about to leave the trailer, we got a call from a ranger saying someone had cancelled their reservation and we would both be able to go on the tour!
When we arrived at the visitors center, we met with our group’s guide, Sina Bear Eagle, one of the interpretive park rangers and also a member of Oglala Lakota Tribe. Sina walked us through what we could expect to see and experience in the cave and outfitted us with all the gear we needed to start our exploration. Wind Cave is the densest (most passage volume per cubic mile) cave system in the world, and currently the sixth-longest in the world, with over 140 miles of explored area. An average of 4 new miles of this cave are explored each year, so Wind Cave is expected to go up in this ranking quite a bit, if not to the top. Unfortunately (but for our safety), cameras and phones were not allowed in the cave, so we weren’t able to get photos inside, but we did get to witness some amazing calcite formations, including the beautiful boxwork (95% of the world’s discovered boxwork is found here!) and frostwork that that Wind Cave is known for. Sina did have her phone with her, so she took a group picture and sent it to everyone. Toward the end of the trip, Sina had us all turn out our headlamps and experience “true dark” while she shared her tribe’s oral history of the cave and what it represents to her people. We felt so lucky to have this experience in Wind Cave that not all people get to enjoy – truly a highlight of our trip. After 4 hours of crawling and climbing through extremely tight spaces, we headed back up to the surface, returned our gear, and headed back to Custer where we grabbed a delicious dinner and sampled yummy beers at Bitter Ester’s Brewhouse.
The next morning, we took a scenic drive along the Iron Mountain Road (Rte. 16A) through Custer State Park and the greater Black Hills area to Mt. Rushmore. The drive itself is gorgeous, featuring quick switchbacks, one-lane stone tunnels, and beautiful overlooks. There are even multiple viewpoints to see Mt. Rushmore from the road. When we reached the entrance to the national monument, we were a little miffed to see that there was an $11 parking fee (not covered by the America the Beautiful Annual Pass) that was required to park and get any closer to the sculpture. The parking lot looked packed, and to be honest, the views from high above on the Iron Mountain Road seemed better, so we opted not to go any further and drove the scenic roads back towards Custer. I was able to snag a closer pic of George Washington’s profile. We spent the rest of the evening doing laundry and work, preparing for the next portion of our trip.
Trae and Jamie