The Black Hills and Devils Tower

Saturday, 07 September 2013 15:30
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The mighty American Bison Journeying into the land of Crazy Horse...

I got up bright and early in Laramie and headed up toward the Black Hills. Most people know the Black Hills as the location of Mount Rushmore, but it’s also the subject of an ongoing land dispute with the Sioux Nation. Some of the nastier events and more underhanded dealings between the US Government and the Indian nations have occurred in the Black Hills and western South Dakota, including the Massacre at Wounded Knee, the taking of the Black Hills in 1877, and shootouts and violence with government agents (resulting in deaths on both sides) as recently as 1975. It’s a beautiful area, and it’s easy to see both why the Indians consider it sacred land and why the government and homesteaders wanted to take it.

I left Laramie and first headed east into Nebraska. As usual, I stayed off the highways, passing through dozens of little towns with populations smaller than my high school graduating class. This was still mostly open prairie, either being used to grow corn, wheat, alfalfa, and hay, or just left natural. I turned north and headed for the hills (literally) at Scottsbluff, NE, with the plan being to camp some place in the Black Hills National Forest that night (and probably the next, too.)

Prairie driving is a lot like desert driving I was not bluffing about driving into Nebraska

Several of the roads I was on paralleled the old Oregon Trail, and in spots there was still evidence of that great migration of people to the west. In one area, the passage of thousands of wagons had carved a trench and wheel grooves into the sandstone, and at “Register Cliff”, the passing settlers and soldiers had carved their names into the soft rock. A lot of other people over the years had done the same, but there were still dozens of spots where you could see names from the late 1800s.

This is the Oregon Trail, worn into sandstone You can clearly see the wagon wheel ruts on the sides At Register Bluff, passing settlers carved their names Markings go back the the late 1800s

I went through Hot Springs, SD on the way up, which is a neat little town where most of the buildings appear to have been made from stone that was quarried locally. That meant red rock, which gave the whole town sort of a terracotta look. There are also hot springs in Hot Springs, but they appeared to all be privately owned, so you needed to stay at a resort or otherwise pay to use and/or see them. I contemplated stopping there for dinner, but it was starting to get closer to sunset, so I pushed on to find a campsite.

My route took me through Wind Cave National Park on the way up. I actually ended up going through the park on two separate days during my wanderings, and not once did I manage to get there during hours that the caves were open. Good excuse for a follow-up trip, though. Even though I didn’t get to the caves, I did get to see some amazing wildlife. I had heard that the bison (aka buffalo) herds in Yellowstone were impressive, but I only got to see a few individuals. Here, though, the herds were out in full force, with hundreds of animals wandering pretty much wherever they wanted to, any time they wanted.  There were also pronghorn around, and several big prairie dog towns with probably thousands of prairie dogs inhabiting them. While still a far cry from the populations of bison that used to roam the prairies, you could almost imagine what it must have been like back then, with thousands of big animals grazing and migrating across the plains.

Giving me his good side Taking a little rest Coming over to lick the car (not really)
Pronghorn dinnertime I'm sure you're wondering why I've called you all here... These guys were like a little comedy troupe

I found a campsite at Oreville and slept there for the night, which was nice and peaceful. It was nice and peaceful until first light anyway, when the local squirrel population woke up. Lots of chattering, and the lovely sound of green pine cones bouncing off the tent and the hood of my car as they tossed them down from the trees. Gathering for winter was apparently in full swing, and they were wasting no time, as it was practically raining pine cones. I packed up my things while dodging the bombardment, and headed up to check out Mount Rushmore.

Rushmore was really interesting—it’s amazing they were able to get the detail and accuracy that they did at that scale and under those conditions.  I also drove around the area a bit, and drove through some tiny tunnels as well as around the “pigtail bridges” on Route 16, all of which afforded some great views of different areas of the Black Hills. I also saw my first bunch of bighorn sheep at the roadside during the drive, but they were way faster than me and my camera.

Iconic Mount Rushmore The artist's model for the sculpture George, Tom, Ted, and Abe
Part of the Black Hills Farther away from Rushmore along Rt. 16 The view through one of the tunnels on Rt.16

As a side note, I’ve been able to see firsthand the scourge of the Pine Beetle, which is killing millions of acres of pines all across the west. It’s sad to see massive swaths of forest just completely dead, killed by this little bug that burrows into the bark. A warmer environment is suspected for the change in the number of beetles, but whatever the reason, they’re killing astonishing amounts of trees and nobody knows how to stop them. It’s pretty sad. 

The brown part is all beetle-killed trees

I was kind of out of “plan” at that point, as I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to do a lot of route planning while going through Colorado, so I sort of made it up from there. I headed up into Rapid City for lunch, then dropped by Ellsworth AFB to see the Air & Space museum there and take a tour of a missile silo training facility. There used to be hundreds of nuclear missile silos dotting the landscape in South Dakota and the surrounding states, the majority of which are decommissioned due to arms reductions, both by treaty and unilaterally. We got to go into the silo itself, which contained a lot of the training equipment in hardened, machined-from-billet aluminum equipment racks, and the missile itself, de-fueled and without warheads.

Not just for Buzz Lightyear Hardened control racks next to the silo Looking down into the silo, with missile
Where the warheads would go if it had them Another view of the Minuteman  

As somebody who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the threat of having your future wiped out in minutes by a nuclear exchange was very real, that missile was probably one of the most evil looking pieces of equipment I’ve ever seen.  I’ve always sort of had a love/hate relationship with military hardware—as an engineering geek, I absolutely love the design work and amazing craftsmanship that goes into making these things work. As a human being, I’m not particularly fond of seeing all that amazing potential and innovation go into things that are designed to kill other people.  It was fantastic to see all that hardware in person (and the museum had some amazing aircraft on display that I’d never seen in the flesh before), but it’s always a bit of mixed feelings on the whole deal.

B1 bomber at the entrance to the museum Another Minuteman II, but with better paint B-52 bomber, pointy end
The simple parts of the F100 landing gear controls The business end of the F100 B-1 supersonic bomber
B-25 Mitchell bomber C-47 "Gooney Bird" F-86 Sabre Jet

I left the world of high technology hardware and headed back south to the Wind Cave park to camp there for the night. There were probably closer places to where I was, but I enjoyed seeing all the bison wandering around and the prairie dogs were an endless supply of comedy, so I headed back there. Neither the bison nor the prairie dogs disappointed, and I caught them all at sunset this time, which was really pretty. Once the sun had fully set, I figured it probably wasn’t a great idea to be mingling with a herd of 2,000 pound animals in the dark, and I grabbed my campsite and hit the sack.

Out for a sunset stroll Lots of bison Even more bison
Looking east this time There were several sizable herds They are not small animals
Taking advantage of the background Another car shot ...aaaand one more

The next morning, I got another natural wakeup call, but instead of squirrels throwing stuff at me, it was bison making loud bison sounds. Think “brontosaurus belching into a 55 gallon drum” if you want an idea of what noise they make. I wanted to get up and at ‘em early that morning anyway, so I took that as my cue, packed up my stuff, and headed out. I didn’t make it very far, though—there was the South Dakota version of a traffic jam about a quarter mile down the road, where a herd of bison had decided that they’d rather walk out on the road than on the grass. It took them about 20 minutes to decide there wasn’t a lot of food in the road, and gradually they cleared away enough for me to get by. I waved goodbye to my buffalo buddies, and headed up toward Deadwood. 

Typical South Dakota morning bison jam

This is the famous Deadwood of many a western—Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane, Boot Hill, all that stuff. The town is somewhat more modern now, but a lot of the original architecture remains. The town was originally formed due to finding gold in the Black Hills (which was the primary impetus for driving the Sioux off in 1877), but now the primary industry seems to be tourism and Harleys (it’s not far from Sturgis—for some reason, SD is a mecca for loud, slow Harleys.) I took a little drive up to Boot Hill to visit Bill and Jane, then wandered westward through Lead and back toward the Wyoming border.

All ready for robbing One of the old power stations for the mines Entering Deadwood
"Custer was lonely without him"...Brokeback Deadwood Not the original marker, but she's here A lot of interesting markers in the cemetary

My plan was to get to Devils Tower around sunset to catch some nice light, but my early morning bison wake-up call had put me a little ahead of schedule. I’d booked a room in Sundance, about 25 miles from the Tower, but I was too early to check in by the time I arrived, so I headed up to the Tower anyway.

There’s some dispute over how Devils Tower actually formed, but no dispute over the fact that it’s a giant igneous (i.e., made of cooled magma) formation.  It cooled and formed in much the same way as those basalt columns that I’d seen in Oregon, except in this case they’re much, much larger. The whole tower is almost 900’ tall, and made entirely of igneous rock that’s formed into regular geometric columns. The general idea is that it was a magma upwelling that cooled underground, and then over the millennia, the ground around it eroded away, leaving the column. In any case, it’s spectacular, and I went up and hiked around the whole thing.( If this looks familiar to anybody and you can’t put your finger on it, it’s where the aliens landed in Close Encounters.)

The Tower One of the local residents Another view

After my hike, I still had a few hours until sunset, so I drove back down to Sundance and checked into my hotel. I needed a shower after a couple of days of camping anyway. I waited for a bit longer, then headed back to the Tower to catch the sunset.  I got the usual daily afternoon rainstorm on the way up, and I just missed getting to the west side of the Tower in time to catch a rainbow behind it. I was definitely in time for the sunset though, and it was great to watch the light change on the face of the rocks as the sun got lower and lower. There were dozens of turkey buzzards out around the Tower catching the last thermal updrafts of the day, and they were gradually returning to the surrounding trees to roost for the night. 

Oh look, another rainbow... There were prayer bundles everywhere Sunset on the tower
Turkey buzzards coming home to roost They like to catch the thermals around the tower More buzzards
Closer to the base Looking north at sunset Another view

Since I was there already, I decided to stay until it got completely dark so I could see some stars. As it got later, it became apparent that I was the only remaining human being out there, which to be honest was a little weird and spooky, but also amazingly cool. There were thunderstorms off in the distance all around, with lighting flashing all across the horizon. I figured this was not an opportunity that one gets every day, so I grabbed a light and some rain gear (just in case, although the storms didn’t look that close), and went off of the same hike around the Tower that I’d taken earlier in the afternoon. It’s a well maintained trail and I had a good light, but with the twilight and the lightning, I didn’t need it very much. In that environment, you could definitely tell why the Indians considered the Tower a sacred place—it was just an incredible experience to be that close to the Tower while there’s lighting and thunder all around and the wind is howling through the pines as the storms get closer. I never got rained on, but I wouldn’t have minded.  

Hiking around the base in the dark Looking east at twilight, waiting for aliens Milky Way and the tower

This is the Kiowa version of the legend of how the Tower came to be:

Eight young Kiowa children were playing in the woods, seven girls and a boy. Suddenly, the boy stopped speaking, and started running around the forest on his hands and feet. As his sisters watched, he became covered with fur, and his fingers turned to claws, and suddenly he had been changed into a bear. The girls ran away, and he chased them through the woods. The girls found a large stump of a big old tree, and they heard a voice tell them to climb up on top of it. As they did so, the stump started to rise and grow larger, and before the bear arrived, they were up out of its reach. The angry bear tried and tried to reach them, leaving long scratches all around the sides of the stump from the top to the bottom, but he could never get to them. As the bear gave up and wandered away, the girls stayed at their perch high in the sky, eventually becoming the seven stars that make up the Big Dipper.

Not a bad explanation, all things considered. I stayed out a bit longer and got a few more photos with the stars, but eventually the storms got closer and it started to rain, so I headed back down to Sundance.

When I woke up the next morning, the weather was pretty horrible—rain, wind, fog, the works. Since the hotel wasn’t that expensive and I had some blogging and other stuff to catch up on, I opted to stay for another day and get that done. I haven’t decided yet whether to head east to the Badlands or north to the Roosevelt National Forest, but I’ll figure it out soon. 

Next: Onward, someplace


#1 minwoo 2013-09-09 14:59
What an amazing post! I am so glad you are keeping a blog, otherwise these would be very long texts. ;)
Such an adventure and I love the history lessons!
#2 lectacave 2013-09-09 16:05
All I keep saying is, "Wow. Wow. Wow." Incredible. Bison on a sunset stroll juxtaposed with weapons of war... how's that for a dose of perspective? Great post! I laughed, I cried, it was better than "Cats".
#3 laceytrynn 2013-09-09 16:06
amazing pics, especially of Devil's Tower at night (and I'll bet the actual view was even more amazing)!
#4 Mom 2013-09-10 18:44
Loved the shot through the tunnel, and the bison traffic jam!

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