The Black Hills

The Black Hills
Pinnacles Overlook at Badlands NP

It was Saturday afternoon when I was sitting in McClaren Hall skyping with parents when I realized that I should probably go for a long road trip since I had Monday off. I had been living in Estes Park for a month and a half and had not really explored much of the area outside the eastern fringe of Rocky Mountain National Park. But I realized that my exploration of the high mountains would have to wait another couple of months until the conditions permitted easy passage. So I set my sights on Wyoming and debated going to the Tetons & Yellowstone or heading to South Dakota to tour the Black Hills.

After some debate, I thought it best to leave the Tetons and Yellowstone for an occasion when I had more time to explore so the Black Hills it was. After a restless nights sleep I hit the road at around 4:30am and drove through the highway 34 canyon until I hit 25 and headed north. I caught a beautiful sunrise in Cheyenne and found the desolate driving across Wyoming to be very peaceful. I got off the main drag and took US 26 to WYM 270 and I found this terrain to be a pleasantly monotonous trudge. Growing up in Ohio there were cornfields, bean fields and wheat fields as far as the eye could see but Wyoming had a whole new landscape of repetitiveness to offer and enjoyed immersing myself loneliness of the vast expanse of treeless plane.

To my right and left were infinite plots of sagebrush with a dusting of white powder and the occasional pack of antelope.  I made a hard right turn in Manville onto US 18/20 then started north on 85 before veering east once again onto US 18, which brought me across the boarder into South Dakota.

There was a interesting shift in landscape and though I new little of the Black Hills, I assumed I had entered them based on my surroundings. I made one final turn onto 385 and headed into Wind Cave National Park. I parked near the main entrance, signed up for a cave tour later in the afternoon and hit the trails. I first headed out on the Wind Cave Canyon Trail and was intrigued by the great diversity of landscape. When I started the run, I was on a grassy plane but that quickly gave way to gentle rolling hills with a scattering of Ponderosa Pines. I quickly entered a canyon that was short in stature, but rich in color and diversity of flora.

Big Horn Sheep Herd

The craggy rock faces were painted in burnt orange and brick red hues and Ponderosa saplings clung to whatever soil they could find on the surface. I could tell that bison had taken this trail earlier in the day, for obvious reasons; however, I did not spot my first Bison until I did some running off trail. After reaching a dead end on the trail I backtracked and headed up the Highland Creek Trail and decided to veer off trail and run up a slight ravine, and after reaching the top I spotted an enormous bison and quickly turned and headed back down to the trail.

It was a perfect day, the sun was shining, the temperature was a mild 50 degrees and the wind was howling and whipping across the planes at speeds that I had never before felt in such idealistic conditions. After getting in part one of my three a day, I started the boxwork cave tour. The cave is quite impressive, as it is one of the longest and most complex networks of mazes in the world. It is estimated that the cave is approximately 195 kilometers when each of its offshoots is totaled. The tour that I took highlighted the boxwork formations in the cave, which Wind Cave is thought to have the most well-formed of these formations in the world.

After roaming around below the surface for a few hours, I made my way back above ground to explore the northern stretches of the park. I ran the short trail to the Lookout Tower that sits 5013 feet above sea level and enjoyed the panoramic views of the Black Hills, even catching a glimpse of my next destination, The Badlands.

Once more I hopped into the car and traveled north into Custer State Park, along the way passing several bison heard numbering between 15 and 20. They appeared to be of similar size to my Nissan Versa and were quite intimidating creatures even from the safety of my car. Since I was in the area and it was presidents day weekend, I thought I would head to Mount Rushmore. Though it was probably the least interesting sight of my road trip and probably hold Crazy Horse and his monument in much higher esteem, I’m glad I got the chance to see it.

I was able to snap some photographs and get in a few more miles before the sunset on day one of my second winter road trip of 2013. I stayed the night in Rapid City and departed in the early morning for Badlands.

I arrived at the Badlands, wandered around the visitors center and then started out on the road to peer out over some of the most interesting rock formations in the United States. I do not believe that I saw more than three other cars the entire day… I had the park to myself. Rightfully so, I suppose, it had to have been about 25-30 degrees with a frigid wind chill. If the trip had one theme it was loneliness and isolation. As an only child and self-proclaimed loner, this feeling of isolation only added to unique experience of the trip.

The Badlands offered the most hauntingly beautiful landscape I had ever seen and since laid eyes upon. The conditions of the trip were so ideal that I am reluctant to ever return for fear that my memory of the sacredness of the place will forever be tarnished. As much as I dislike driving in a national park, when I have the option to run instead, it was a beautiful drive that was carved through the landscape. At the end of the paved road I decided to try my luck taking the dusty dirt Sage Creek Road.

I vividly recall traveling slowly over the washboard road, blasting the radio and passing heard of both Big Horn Sheep and Bison. I believe the ewes seemed kind fond of the Who’s Baba ‘O riley as I passed, but this is purely speculation.

After making it off the dirt road without a punctured tire, I hit Bigfoot Trail (27), which took me through the Pine Ridge Reservation and by the tragic sight of Wounded Knee. I then decided to head south through Nebraska on 87, on my way back to Estes Park. I continued to debate making a side trip to the mecca of Chadron, Nebraska, former home town of Baldwin Wallace cross country & track coaching legend William Taraschke who has retired this year after 31 years of coaching (Perhaps for the most astute readers, you may discover a link between the title of my blog the preceding sentences).

But I decided that I would save this for another occasion. At any rate I continued to head south and visit Chimney Rock National Historic Site, this may hold some meaning to those interested in the history of the Oregon Trail. After running a few miles around ranch land surrounding this auspicious spire that was such an important landmark, I took to the back roads once again on my quest to return to my home to resume my duties in the RMNP greenhouse. As with most of my trips it was short lived, but full of memories, even 28 months later, I can still vividly recall the sights, sounds and the feelings that the journey to the Black Hills evoked.

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