Week two of our current westward adventure began as we drove across the prairie to Rapid City. We got to town before noon, so of course we needed to check out the brewery we saw advertised along the route with some two dozen fire engines: Firehouse Brewing.
Parked the motorhome near their Civic Center and walked through a beautiful city park about two blocks from downtown. Very cute downtown, with baskets of flowers and lots of trendy shops and eateries. Found the Firehouse (literally their old firehouse) and ordered lunch.
Doug was thirsty, so he had a flight of their nine beers. We both agreed their red ale was the best, even though Jackie was hoping for a robust porter.
Back to the motorhome and then southwest to Custer State Park. The approach into the park is vast rolling hills of light green grasslands sprinkled with dark pines. We meandered into the park on serpentine roads searching for bison. Nothing yet. We made camp in record time, since the site at Grace Coolidge Campground was very level and an easy back-in. Yes, the car and hitch came off, but it was super easy. Electric only, but we had dumped and filled our fresh water at Badlands, so we were all good.
Over the next three days we stayed on the move. We drove the Wildlife Loop Trail twice, drove the Needles Highway twice, drove Iron Mountain Road to Mt. Rushmore, visited Custer and Hill City and Crazy Horse Mountain. Best way to describe them all is that nothing is straight, everything seems to be about a 20 mile loop and you better keep your eyes open for wildlife, cause it is there.
First trip around the Wildlife Loop Trail we were thinking about the first part of Jurassic Park when they kept asking where the dinosaurs were. Nice scenery, but where are the bison? Oh, those cars are stopped, maybe that’s … no, just pronghorn. Wait, there are more stopped ahead … no, just the local “begging burros.”
Plenty of prairie dog villages, but no bison. Hmmm, cars stopped ahead, woah …. look at the shoulder of the road there is a bison and calf and … yikes! Suddenly we were in the middle of the herd.
All the cars were stopped and for good reason, as the herd was moving from right to left across and down the road. We had the windows down and were snapping pictures as these big ol’ guys climbed out of the ditches and ambled alongside the car, their hooves softly clip-clopping down the road. It was amazing and a bit unnerving – I spotted two large males ambling up behind the car in the rearview mirror and they just stopped right behind, as if they were waiting in line. We probably stayed in the middle of this herd for 30 to 40 minutes. You really had no choice since they blocked both lanes of the road. Wow. We went back to that area on a different day and had another great “midst of the herd” encounter.
Later in the week we would see one or two in other sections of the park, just grazing or sitting off the road. On one of our trips around the park we pulled off behind another stopped car and asked what they were watching. Elk. We watched a small group of females munching their way up a hillside.
We also saw plenty of white-tailed deer grazing off the road, watched as about six turkeys crossed the road and caught a mule deer drinking at a stream. The wildlife moving through the park seems to be everywhere. By now we are both on a hunt for mountain goats, said to frequent the higher elevations along Needles Highway.
One excursion took us into Custer around noon, so we stopped to eat at Burger and Bun, a very popular spot recommended to us at Firehouse Brewing. Indeed, the burgers were delicious and the place had a cool vibe. Washed down with local beer, of course. Custer is another great town for tourists, with plenty or rock shops, western wear and local art. Their public art is painted bison placed around town.
We drove the Iron Mountain Road to Mt. Rushmore one morning and really enjoyed it. This roadway has tons of switchbacks, a few narrow tunnels and a couple of corkscrew turns where you curve under the roadway itself. One of the last tunnels you travel was designed to point directly at the mountain carving for a perfect framed view.
Once at the Monument, it became even more impressive. We walked the boardwalk and stairway trail that circled pretty close and got great views of each of the presidential profiles. All of the public areas have been updated beautifully and the restaurant/gift shop is impressive.
Needles Highway is another treat to drive. We first drove it downhill, then returned another day to go uphill. Each time was a crazy drive of U-turn curves, switchbacks, single lane tunnels and overlooks. When you approach the narrowest tunnel, Needles Eye (at 8’ 4”) it is a minor parking lot with people walking around snapping pictures, cars waiting their turn to pass … all surrounded by towers of smooth granite. The roadways are a favorite of motorcyclists, although we are lucky that the huge (500,000 or more) motorcycle rally in Sturgis just ended as we arrived here. Plenty still remain, however.
Ever notice how small a world it is? We met a very nice family in Badlands who were quite taken with Kodi. Shared our experiences and wished them well. As we were hiking around Sylvan Lake, a gorgeous but remote spot at the end of Needles Highway, who do we spot but our friends from the Badlands. We shared more stories and then snapped a pic of our new peeps from the Badlands/Black Hills. We learned that they don’t head back to school until after Labor Day, unlike our school, which began July 31. Kinda explains all the kids we see everywhere.
We had one more stop to make, at Crazy Horse Memorial. This is an impressive tribute to all Native Americans and it is going to be many more years in the making. We toured the museum collections and gazed at the profile of Crazy Horse that was in progress. They said that the heads of Mt. Rushmore would fit inside Crazy Horse’s sculpted head.
Funny how we ended up in town around lunchtime each day. In Custer we stopped in at Naked Winery/Sick ‘n Twisted Brewery for a flight. Quiet spot now that cycle week was over.
We were told their main location in Hill City was much better stocked, so on another day we were headed to sample more of their beer and also visit the main location of Prairie Berry Winery/Miner Brewing in town. Hill City looked like fun as we slowly drove through on our way to the breweries when …
… all of a sudden a deer ran across in front of the car, I hit the brakes, but we slammed into it. Rolled to a stop, deer continued on and we looked at the damage. Bumper and front grill not looking good and when I finally got the hood up, the radiator was pushed back.
So these things happened next:
- Pulled in to the visitors center just yards ahead of us and asked about auto repair shop
- Auto repair shop south of town said they couldn’t repair, but looked like AC was out, no leaks otherwise
- Told we must report the accident to State Patrol immediately, and did
- Headed up the road again to get something to eat at… Sick ‘n Twisted
- Spoke to State Patrol, who would meet us to look at car and file report (and where would that be exactly? Brewery)
- Officer filed his report, we called insurance, went in to have a flight and pizza
- Brewery had wifi and cell service, so we located nearest Toyota dealer in Rapid City
- Just yards ahead was Miner Brewing, but I only was able to run in and get a sticker (sad)
- Drove to Rapid City where they looked at radiator (we were expecting repair) and said it was not leaking and should be ok for rest of trip
- Drove back to camp and tried to shake it off
Well, at least we can drive the car, minus the AC. Since it has been in ‘70’s here and should be no hotter in Glacier, Yellowstone, Tetons, we can make it. The right headlight looks like Mad-eye Moody, all wonky and pointed in strange directions. Body work will just have to wait until we are back home. Well, at least it wasn’t a bison.
On our last night in camp we drove toward the Wildlife Loop Road, expecting to see the herd again, but no herd was around. We did scare up the turkeys again and spotted about a half dozen solo male bison on the shoulder of the road. The evening’s highlight was watching a large herd of elk moving along a hillside and down to the fields below – probably about 30 or more, a mixture of females, youngsters and young males. They were bugling and making all sorts of noises as they moved along. Very cool.
So our stay in Custer State Park has been amazing. Animals all around, except the elusive mountain goats, and nice fall-like weather. Just one big thunderstorm at night.
So, what’s next? Off to Bighorn National Forest for two days, with a stop at Devil’s Tower on the way. Then a couple of KOA nights in Billings and Great Falls (the time of the eclipse) so we can take care of laundry, stock up on supplies and ready ourselves for Glacier National Park.
Thanks for following along (click to follow) as the adventure continues . . .