Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Three Parks in One Day

On the second day of our stay in the Black Hills, my husband Tim and I visited two national parks, the Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and one state park, Custer State Park.  Touring three parks in a single day might seem monumental, but it was achievable, if we proposed to remain for flag retiring ceremony at Mount Rushmore at 9 p.m. which we did.

Point A - Our campground
Point B - Wind Cave National Park
Point C - Lookout Point Trailhead
Point D - Legion Lake Dam
Point E - Mount Rushmore National Monument

First, we journeyed south from our campground near Silver City, SD, to Wind Cave National Park whose expanse both aboveground and below we found well worth exploring.

Kassia, our ranger, demonstrated how strongly the wind escapes the blowhole.
After our tour, I couldn't resist the chance to experience it for myself.

Wind Cave is rightly named for it was the whistling sound of a strong draft of air escaping through a blowhole that attracted cowboy brothers Jesse and Tom Bingham to investigate its source in 1881.  Of course, the Native Americans of this environs had known about the cave for centuries.  To them, it was a sacred place.

Ignoring the sacredness of the Natvive Americans' belief, the McDonald family turned a failed mining venture into a commercial success by homesteading the claim, exploring the cave, widening its passageways, selling its formations and luring locals to see its wonders.  

Their son, Alvin, spent much of his time exploring and mapping the cave, all the while, keeping a journey of his findings that has proved to be helpful to this day.

Formations found in the cave are popcorn (upper left), boxwork (upper right) and frostwork (lower left).  The remaining photos are chambers within the cave.

Exploration of the cave has brought to light almost 145 miles of underground caverns.  Yet, scientists speculate from barometric pressure readings that number is only five percent of the actual extent of the cave.  The known passages of the cavern weave back and forth below a square mile of area.

Earlier this year, Tim and I toured Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  For sheer grandeur, I would pick Carlsbad, but if one desires a more intimate--dare I say--claustrophobic speleological experience, then I'd recommend Wind Cave.  At Carlsbad and armed with a map, visitors may saunter along broad walkways laid out inside the large chambers of the cave, but at Wind Cave, access is limited to ranger-led tours of 20 to 25 people.  There we squeezed through narrow passages, ducking our heads and pulling in our arms to make ourselves as small as possible.  At one point, Kassia, our ranger guide, switched off the lights, leaving us in a darkness that felt like the grave.  Returning to surface was almost painful until our eyes adjusted to the sunlight.

Wind Cave National Park also offers more than 30 miles of trails that wander over prairie grasslands and Ponderosa forests.  We chose to hike the lovely Lookout Point Loop from Lookout Point to Beaver Creek.  There we joined the Centennial Trail, a 111-mile trail through the Black Hills, although the portion we walked was less than two miles.  

Bones picked clean by an unknown predator (center left) and a buffalo wallow (lower right) are pictured above. 

Warned that buffalo freely roam the park, I was a little nervous, but all we saw were wallows where they had rolled for relief from insects or parasites.  Nonetheless, I was grateful to return to the safety of our car.

Next, we drove along Hwy 87, the western boundary of Custer State Park.  There is an admission fee of $20 per vehicle to enter the park which is home to buffalo, pronghorn antelope, elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Even though we only skirted the park, we were fortunate to see a few of its residents. 

This group of white-tailed deer seemed to be posing for pictures.  Naturally, we stopped to oblige them.  Even the tour bus behind us slowed so its passengers could take advantage of the photo op.

Further north, we encountered a traffic jam, caused by this fellow, a magnificent buffalo who seemed to be wallowing in all the admiration. 

Scenes from the Norbeck Byway
Barney Peak, right center above, is the highest point in the Black Hills.

The highway curved around Legion Lake, but Mount Rushmore beckoned so we didn't stop to photograph it.  We knew we would need additional time to navigate the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway that lay between us and our objective.  We were right!  The byway twisted, turned and tunneled through the hills.  

If you look carefully in the photo above, you may see Mount Rushmore framed by the tunnel.  

Finally, we arrived at Mount Rushmore a couple hours before sunset.  By then, many day visitors had departed, leaving the park relatively empty.  

Avenue of Flags displays the 56 states, districts, territories and commonwealths of the U.S.

There is no entrance fee at the park, but the concessionaires who run the parking garage charge a fee of $11 per vehicle which is valid until the end of the year.  We were too late to join one of the ranger-led programs held earlier in the day.  Instead, Tim suggested we grab something to eat at the park's cafe.  

We ordered buffalo burgers and sat outside on the patio where we feasted on our sandwiches and the sight of the granite presidential faces above us.

Presidential Trail

Following our meal, we walked the Presidential Trail, finding the differing perspectives of the monumental carving arresting in the fading light.  Yet, the photos I took were disappointing compared to actually being there.  The carvings face south.  In July, the sun sets behind the bluff, leaving the faces in the shadows.  The best I could do with my iPhone's camera was the panoramic shot below.  

I wanted to return to the park at daybreak when the rising sun would have illuminated the faces more fully, but our campsite was 30 miles away.  Tim balked at that idea.

What didn't disappoint us was the patriotic tribute that began at 9 p.m.  First, park rangers presented a program that included a video depicting the creators, the carvers and the choice of which famous faces should be included in the carving. 

Tim is in the back row, 8th from the end.

Then, veterans and current military members were called down to the stage.  The American flag was lowered from the flagpole and ceremoniously folded while the servicemen and women saluted. Finally, the ranger walked the length of the stage, holding the microphone close to each soldier and vet, asking for their names and branch of the military, and thanking them for their service.  The stage was darkened and spotlights flooded the faces of the monument above.

It was very moving, the perfect way to end a monumental day.


  1. I love the pic of the buffalo, just hanging out. What an adventure you guys are on. Nothing new going on around here. Enjoy the West. :)

  2. We are having a great trip, one I hope to remember through these posts. Thanks for taking the time to read this!

    Tell Tricia hello from me,