Custer, SD Area & Douglas, WY (August 25 – September 3, 2021)

On Wednesday, August 25th, we arrived at Fort Welikit Family Campground in Custer, SD in the mid-afternoon for a weeklong stay.  Our pull-through site was long enough but required a lot of care to fit in between trees on all sides.  The trees precluded the use of our satellite dish but, fortunately, the campground provided 70 cable channels.

After dinner, we went for a walk around the campground.  It was quickly apparent that we were going to need to get adjusted to the high altitude.

On Thursday, we drove to Custer State Park.  We first stopped at the Visitor Center.  We examined many of the displays and watched a video about the park, narrated by Kevin Costner.  Then, we drove the Wilderness Loop through the park.  Our first animal encounter was with a bison that was sauntering up the middle of the road.  Rather than risk trying to pass it, we followed behind it until it finally decided to leave the road.  Farther down the road, we encountered a large herd of bison crossing the road and we watched from a safe distance.  There were quite a large number of calves with their mothers.  We got lunch at a food truck and, somewhat rudely, both ordered bison burgers.

After lunch, we continued on the Wilderness Loop and encountered a pack of burros.  They had been fairly far away until some of the spectators pulled out bags of carrots and apples.  It didn’t take long before the crowd was surrounded by burros looking for a handout.  Jan got to feed one of them, then made friends with one of the babies.

When the food ran out, the burros departed and we continued our drive.  At the end of the loop, we drove up a one-mile gravel road to the Mt. Coolidge Scenic Overlook.  The drive was somewhat scary, since we were next to a cliff with few guardrails, but, fortunately, there was very little opposing traffic.  Once we reached the summit, we climbed the observation tower but we were chased back down by a huge swarm of gnats.

On Thursday, we returned to Custer State Park and drove the 14-mile stretch of SD-87 known as the Needles Highway due to its tall granite peaks, resembling needles.  The highway was constructed in 1922, when it was considered by many to be impossible to complete.  The highway was extremely winding but contained numerous pull-offs that allowed us to enjoy the scenery. 

The most famous part of the drive is the Needle Eye Tunnel.  This one-way tunnel is only 8’0” wide by 9’9” high.  We were lucky to get through the tunnel with no delay but watched quite a traffic jam develop once we reached the other side.  A large crowd grew to watch a dually squeeze through the tunnel.

Needle Eye Tunnel, as seen through our dirty windshield

Our final stop was at Sylvan Lake.  We ate lunch, then hiked the one-mile trail around the lake. 

After a relaxing day on Saturday, we were back on the road on Sunday.  We began by driving the Iron Mountain scenic highway.  Like the Wilderness Loop and Needles Highway we had done previously, this highway was designed on foot and horseback by Peter Norbeck, former South Dakota governor and US senator.  All three of these highways were designed to be driven no faster than 25 mph.  The 17-mile Iron Mountain Road was constructed in 1933 and includes magnificent views of the Black Hills, single-lane tunnels that frame Mount Rushmore and three pigtail bridges.  A pigtail bridge is a road bridge that loops over its own road, allowing the road to climb rapidly. 

After completing the Iron Mountain Road, we visited the Mount Rushmore National Monument.  We hiked the one-mile Presidential Trail that took us near the base of the monument.  Unlike our previous visit to Mount Rushmore many years ago when we froze, the weather on Sunday was sunny and a comfortable 77 degrees. 

On Monday, August 30th, we met Eric and Julie Paulikonis for lunch at Bumpin’ Buffalo Bar and Grill in Hill City, SD.  Eric and Julie had been the tail gunners for our caravan to Alaska in the summer of 2018.  It was great to see them again and catch up on what we’d been doing since that trip.  After lunch, we went to the Prairie Berry Winery in Hill City for a wine tasting. 

We both had dentist appointments in Rapid City, SD on Tuesday morning.  On the drive to Rapid City, Jan was able to capture some pictures of the Crazy Horse Memorial.  This monument has been in progress since 1948 and is far from completion.  Our morning appointments were finished by 11:30 but, since Jan needed to return at 1:30 for a minor repair to some previous dental work, we had two hours to kill.  We drove to downtown Rapid City and explored the Main Street Square.  Rapid City has sculptures of all of the US Presidents on the downtown street corners.  After checking out several of the Presidents, we stopped for lunch at the Firehouse Brewing Company.  The restaurant is in a former station of the Rapid City Fire Department.

On Wednesday, September 1st, we drove 168 miles to Douglas, WY, where we spent two nights at the Douglas KOA.  Other than a couple of long construction zones, the drive went smoothly.  There was little to do in Douglas so we spent a couple of leisurely days there.

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