We woke to a bright sunny day, perfect for taking sparkling pictures. The plan was to drive the 67-mile loop in Custer State Park, comprising the Wildlife Loop, the Iron Mountain Highway and the Needles Highway. I had also downloaded several caches to try and find along the way. I can hear it now...."you plan on taking all day to drive 67 miles?"....yep, we were out for 9 hours all together!
The area that encompasses Custer State Park was originally designated as a game preserve in 1913. Then-governor Peter Norbeck's dream was to establish a large acreage within the Black Hills that would sustain the re-introduction of several species that had been driven away or close to extinction by the gold miners. Today, the park is home to a free-roaming herd of bison (buffalo) numbering approximately 1300, elk, big horn sheep, mountain goats and pronghorn. Mule deer and white-tail deer are prominent habitants as well, along with the prairie dogs!
The Wildlife Loop is 18 miles long, and twists and turns through the rolling prairie and ponderosa pine forests. This big guy was our first wildlife sighting as we started down the loop.
The view east towards The Badlands from Heddy Draw Overlook.
We drove up the dirt road to the Mt. Coolige Firetower for a sweeping view in all directions..through binoculars you could see the Crazy Horse memorial, the Needles (above), Mount Rushmore, Harney Peak and The Badlands.
This is a lonely grave on the prairie we found while geocaching. "Dr. Alvin Herbert settled along the South Fork of Lame Johnny Creek in 1888 near the stage station so he could get his medications directly from the coaches. A well respected citizen he was at one time the postmaster of Bakerville, born in Ohio on October 28, 1824 living in seven different states before moving here after the death of his wife. One of his sons Almon ran a large ranch in the area and upon his death the Dr was buried on Almon’s ranch. A concrete marker set with various native stones was erected over his grave. Today it is the only visible manifestation of the Bakerville area."
I thought the marker was beautiful with all the native stones set into it.
Not quite-so-wild wildlife along the way...the burros live in the park, having been released in the early 1900's from the tourist trade, carrying folks up and down Harney Peak. As you can see they are quite friendly.
The buffalo herd was not very close to the loop today. There was a path leading out there, and many folks were waltzing happily down it, but I was paying strict attention to the "buffalo are dangerous do not approach" signs. It led through a prairie dog town as well, and knowing the fleas from them carry disease, did not want to approach them to closely either. My last reason is I know that the prairie rattler often hangs around prairie dog towns, and being that I haven't seen one the entire time I've been out west, I would like to keep it that way, thank you!
The closest pronghorn I came across. I had always thought they were antelope, and are commonly referred to as antelope, but they aren't. Antelope are found exclusively in Africa. They are simply pronghorn. They are often cited as the second fastest animal on earth, after the cheetah. That must be why I've had a hard time getting a good picture :-).
As we exited the Wildlife Loop, we stopped at one of the very nice General Stores in the park, the Coolidge General Store, for some sandwiches and drinks and had a nice picnic lunch on the grounds. Being here in the off season is very nice, crowd-wise :-). We then started up the Iron Mountain Road, and came to our first view of Mount Rushmore where the faces were discernible. (you can click on any picture to make it bigger and see it better)
"The Iron Mountain Road is a work of art in itself. The highway connects Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The highway passes through some of the most beautiful scenery in the Black Hills and including three tunnels that frame Mount Rushmore in the distance. The road is famous for the "Pigtail Bridges" that allows travelers to drop or gain altitude quickly.
The highway was constructed in the 1930s under the direction of Governor Peter Norbeck, who is also known as the "Father of Custer State Park." Norbeck said of the Iron Mountain Road, "this is not meant to be a super highway, to do the scenery justice you should drive no more than 20 mph and to do it full justice you should simply get out and walk." Experience the road that engineers once said couldn't be built; you'll be happy you did."
Each of the three tunnels have a view of Mount Rushmore as you are going through them, south to north.
Geocaching along the way! Casey is helping on this one, Chelsea decided she didn't want to get out of the truck for this one. We had just finished a two-mile hike on the Iron Creek Trail, and she was tired :-). There are trailheads all over the area for your hiking pleasure.
An ever-closer view of Mount Rushmore. As we exited the Iron Mountain Highway, this is the closest we would get to the Memorial today. Visiting the Memorial is on tomorrow's agenda. A quick stop in Keystone for some ice cream and a restroom break, and we were on to our third leg of the day, the Needles highway.
First was a stop at Sylvan Lake. This is a beautiful recreation area, with a few hiking trails and boating rentals. It was getting late in the day, so we didn't walk around the lake, but it is on the agenda for our last day here.
"The Needles Highway is a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen and rugged granite mountains
The road's name comes from the needle-like granite formations which seem to pierce the horizon along the highway.
The roadway was carefully planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback. Construction was completed in 1922.
Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle's Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing and thawing."
The formations are awesome along here!
We approached the smallest tunnel on the highway....12 feet high and 8feet 4inches wide...we'll have 2 inches to spare on either side of our hips!
Before heading to the tunnel though, this formation is "The Eye of the Needle"...really cool.
Al had me walk through the tunnel to get a picture of the truck as it came through the tunnel...not much room to spare, but we made it! Cheers and applause as we went through, too funny!
The formation known as Cathedral Spires.
One last view along the Needles Highway as we headed back to the campground.
The drive was beautiful, and different in so many ways. The three sections really highlight the beauty of the Black Hills. It was a long day, but so worthwhile. The next section will be our visits to the two big memorials in the area, Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Thanks for sticking with me, and also for all the wonderful comments, they make my day!