Well, once again, we find that we’ve underestimated an entire area of the country. Beyond knowing Mt. Rushmore is in the Black Hills, I didn’t have much context. Richard had his sights set on something called “The Mickelson Trail,” which is a rails to trails, gravel bike path that runs over a hundred miles from Deadwood to Edgemont, South Dakota. That’s about all we knew and we got hit in the face with another unexpectedly rich region to explore.
Leaving Badlands, we traveled west along highway 44. Tragically, this put us too far south to manage a stop at Wall Drug. So don’t ask if we saw Wall Drug. We did not. I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to move on with our lives despite this glaring omission, but we did see Carhenge later, so I think we’re even. The countryside along that highway is very beautiful. You skirt along the Badlands for a while until you eventually see the rise in the landscape on the horizon. The Black Hills are well named, based solely on their long distance impression. Up close, they remind me of the Sierra foothills. There are dense forests, outcropping of rock, and downright mountain grades on these roads. Somehow, my childhood memory of visiting Mt. Rushmore did not include mountains.
One thing we did know going into the area was that we would be competing for campsites with the 500,000 motorcyclists coming through for the Sturgis rally. We had some hesitation over even trying for it, but found that there was one campground in Custer State Park, the Center Lake campground, that only took same day reservations. This was good news to us, as we knew we’d then stand an equal chance for reserving a site. One private place we’d called said that not only were they fully booked, but if they’d had a site open up, it would be an “event pricing” rate of $129/night with a 5 night minimum. Ouch. So we banked on Custer, went online prompty at 7am, and nabbed a site by the river for 3 nights. No problems, no worries.
As we made our way toward Center Lake, we found that a) Custer State Park is really really big, and b) the roads in the park include incredibly tight tunnels and these things called “pigtails.” A pigtail is a place in the road that loops around itself like a winding staircase, passing over a bridge at the top. It’s a great way to gain elevation quickly, but would be problematic for a large rig or longer trailer than Dory. She made it through everything with no problem taking the Iron Mountain Road. I do not believe the same would be true if we tried the Needles Highway because there is one tunnel there that was a squeeze with just the car. We got set up in our site and went right to the Visitor Center to get our bearings a little. That is an impressive place, recently constructed, with interactive maps, movies, the whole deal. The big thing we had to work out was how to deal with the logistics of Richard riding the Mickelson trail.
We grabbed dinner in Custer and then went back to the site to process. There was more to do and figure out than we had bargained for. Custer SP approaches the level of a national park, plus, there are so many things to see in the surrounding area, it became difficult to prioritize. By morning, Richard had decided he wanted to go for it, doing as much of the Mickelson as he thought he could cover in a day. With that said, it was a sixty mile drive up to Deadwood where I dropped him and his bike off at the trailhead and wished him well. I spent the following hours checking out Deadwood and Lead, and then headed back down to do some of the trickier state park roads. The “Needles” road is amazing. There are a couple of very tight tunnels, one whose width and height are just over 8 feet. The scenery is a glorious mixture of rocky and forested, with little meadows appearing here and there on your way. I shared the road with hundreds of bikers and found them to all be very well behaved. At some of the tunnels, where traffic started to back up, they were all eager to help direct traffic and get people in and out. I found that to be pretty cool. Despite the rhetoric on the various T-shirts and tattoos, they mostly seemed to be good guys (and gals), taking selfies and panorama shots with their iPhones, just like everyone else.
I thought for a moment about throwing my kayak into Sylvan Lake, but it was way too crowded there, so I just moved on. By the afternoon, I’d done a lot of leisurely scenic driving and decided to head back up to the Crazy Horse Memorial. This turned out to be one of my favorite stops. I like the history of the monument, meaning it was initiated by a Native American named Standing Bear, in order to honor the history, culture and heroes of the Lakota people. The project is huge in scope and will take generations to complete. But the family carrying on the work seems to be very dedicated to seeing it through and maintaining the original purpose and intent of the sculptor. The project goes hand in hand with the creation of a university for native Americans, so overall, it has a very good vibe.
By around 4:30 I hadn’t heard from Richard and started to get a little worried. Thankfully, he checked in and was ok, but exhausted. It turns out riding on gravel is much more difficult than pavement (who knew?) and there were long stretches of trail that went through areas of abandoned little former railway towns, and no cell service. For a guy who is capable of covering a hundred miles in a day, he says the fifty miles he did on the Mickelson was harder. He got himself to the Crazy Horse Memorial road and exhaustedly changed and had dinner in the Visitor Center restaurant.
The next day, Richard was pretty wiped out. We drove the Wildlife Loop in the state park and I got in a nice paddle on Center Lake in the afternoon. There I spied what looked like two Ospreys and a pair of Kingfishers. I took blurry photos. We ate dinner in swinging chairs, to the sound of the babbling river, that was apparently abnormally full. We felt ready to move on from Custer, but the park had a couple of parting gifts to offer.
Before heading south, we stopped at the one and only dump station in the park. This remains a sore point for Richard. While he expected there to be a backup of RVs, he did not expect a backup of Bison. We got stalled for a bit, waiting for a small herd to pass. After that, we pulled in behind a large trailer and waited our turn. We generally take about ten minutes to do our business and the couple in front of us was doing a very thorough job. Eventually, the wife approached and suggested we pull around to use the other side of the dump. That was nice, we said, but it would take some maneuvering for us to come around so the hookups were on the right side. We asked how much longer they thought they’d be and we got a vague answer saying something about going home to Virginia. So we waited a little longer. Once we got it that they were going to be there for the long haul, we’d had enough and I commenced the round about maneuver to get us to the other side. Well, by the time we’d backed out and swung around, a huge RV jumped in front of us on the other side. Now Richard was mad and we had to sit there, watching Thorough Couple on the left, with Never RV’d Couple on the right, in a race to see who could take the longest. Wow, that was painful. Never RV’d guy was having an impossible time hooking up hoses, and since we were now irritated, I let Mr. Thorough try to help him. Finally, Thorough Couple started to put away their boxes and buckets and we got them to pull forward enough to let us through. I backed, pulled out, and swung around again so we could dump and go. I got out to help Mr. Never RV’d connect his hoses while Richard finished up and got set to use the dump hose to rinse out. Whether intentional or not (he swears it wasn’t), the hose jumped out of his hand due to intense water pressure and then proceeded to douse everyone standing outside, with me and Never RV’d guy taking the brunt of it. This could have ended in a fist fight, but instead, the guy laughed, acknowledged he’d jumped the line, and joked that spraying him was unnecessary. Richard still kinda thinks it was.
After that, we headed out of the park, taking the long route via the Wilderness Loop. As Custer State Park’s little wave goodbye, we got the incredible treat of getting caught in a Buffalo filled traffic jam. There must have been a hundred crossing the road right in front of us. It was beautiful, exciting, and scary all at the same time. There were no incidents or aggressive moves at all in the herd, but any stupid move from the humans in the crowd could have proved dangerous.
We drove out and moved on, having chalked up sightings of Pronghorns, Donkeys, Prairie Dogs, Deer, Ospreys and Kingfishers, in addition to a whole lot of Bison up close, plus Mt. Rushmore in the distance. This is an amazing state park, but we suggest you think of it more like a national park, and be prepared to spend a lot of time in this area.
Total miles from Badlands: 109.6, 15.6 mpg, 3 hours 14 min. Center Lake campground, site 32. Easy walk to the lake. Vault toilets with running water and shower rooms by the lake. NO cell service at the site, but we were able to hit ATT from the water and use the booster for 1-2 bars of slow Verizon LTE. Shady sites, but we got some solar at midday. Nice peaceful campground.