wildlife wildflowers and waterfalls: Black Hills, Custer State Park, Devils Tower and Buffalo Roundup September 2008

wildlife wildflowers and waterfalls

because "...you can't invent more time." Lemony Snicket

Dan and Linda's Travel Journal

Friday, October 24, 2008


Black Hills, Custer State Park, Devils Tower and Buffalo Roundup September 2008

A buffalo roundup. A scene in a old western movie? No, this is an annual event at Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota each fall.

The Buffalo Roundup is the reason for and in many ways the best part of our trip, but happens at the very end. Of course, I must tell everything leading up to this point.

Getting there:

Wrapping up a garage sale with Kim, Marc and family, we leave Topeka on Saturday around 2:30 pm. It seems we never drive in a straight line on a vacation. From Kansas to South Dakota would logically be north through central Kansas and Nebraska. We decide it wouldn’t be too much out of our way to visit Doug, Drue, Trent and Carly in Monument Colorado. We tire out at Burlington Colorado so park, close the curtains and call it a night. The next morning we arrive in Monument in time to take the family to breakfast at the Coffee Cup Café.

Eventful two days include accompanying the kids to the amazing Rocky Mountain Zoo and making a tape-recorded recollection of my 93year old uncle’s childhood with my mother. This is a priceless highlight, thanks to his daughter and my cousin, Sylvie, who helps with the memories. We also convince Roger, Dan’s cousin to come up from the Springs for dinner. It’s a good visit, but time to move on.

From Monument, we take Hwy 105 through Palmer Lake north catching the bypass around south Denver to I70. This route is an alternate to I25 and well worth the extra time because of the less commercial view of the Front Range. Since our destination is Granby Colorado, we head west on 70 to Hwy 40 and north through Berthoud Pass. The drive is beautiful as Aspens are starting their show in the lower elevations and in full color on the pass.

Ken and my cousin Kaylene have lived in Granby for years. A visit to their home always includes a meal “thrown together” but contains delicious touches of Kaylene’s gourmet cooking. It is almost sundown before we make the short drive to just inside Rocky Mountain Park and the elk herd in the area. Luckily, the rut is not complete and we hear the bull elk bugle. What a grand yet eerie sound. The magnificent young bull is keeping track of his cows. Closer to our vantage spot we spot an older bull with a huge rack. He bugles but the ladies he is pursuing seem to be moving toward the younger group. So goes life.

Kaylene and Ken plug the Trekker in and we bed down. We barely keep warm during the 28 degree night. Kaylene loans us another blanket for the rest of the trip. Thankfully, this is the coldest night we encounter.

Wednesday morning we take advantage of a hot shower, a short visit and Kaylene’s delicious blueberry pancakes. Hwy 125 takes us north through Rand, a little town with a sense of humor.

A little further down the road is Walden. Our friends there are back in Kansas. That’s OK as there are miles ahead of us in Wyoming! Lots of miles, we discover.

Before we reach Colorado’s northern border, we continue on Hwy 125 north from Walden. This is Colorado’s hay country. Of course, every ranch has horses. They paint a beautiful picture grazing on the newly mowed but still green fields with mountains in the background.

Cheyenne, Wyoming is a real western town. It even smells dusty. We drive around because we need to find a Wal Mart. Now, some might think we are addicted to Wal Marts, but this is legitimate. Our back battery, the one for the RV, is not holding a charge and we want to trade it in for a new one. We never did find a Wal Mart. We thought, “oh well, we’ll catch one in another town.” In the end, we had many laughs about that thought. Not every town here in God’s country has this Midwest mainstay.

We leave Cheyenne around 4:00 pm traveling north on Hwy 85 which parallels the Wyoming/Nebraska border. Thankfully, I put together a hamburger and vegetable meal in our trucker’s oven and it smells delicious. Many miles of wide open spaces go by before we decide to stop and eat at a roadside oasis overlooking the rolling Wyoming hills. Our meal might as well be at a five star restaurant. Of course, it helps we are hungry as the coyotes running in the distance.

It is close to 10:00 pm when we reach a small Wyoming town named Lusk. We drive around a bit. It’s always interesting to check out a small town at night. Lusk did not disappoint. There is a group of pickups and a bunch of people doing something on a side street. A slow drive by tells the story. It is a locker plant and hunters are butchering their game right there on the side street and throwing the waste into a big gravel type dump truck—and it looks full! In another drive by, We determine it must be deer and antelope hunting season. Our observation of Wyoming up to that point is they have plenty of both.

Up early the next morning, we pay tribute to the west by washing eggs and bacon down with strong perked coffee.

Black Hills

It is 10:00 am when we arrive in Custer South Dakota. First a small café, coffee and roll to make plans. We learn from our waiter the large painted buffalo around town are part of the Custer Stampede celebration. It would be fun to find each of the 30 buffalo and see the artists creations. Instead, we walk a short distance to the Custer welcome center for maps and information.

One would think Custer might cater to tourists since it sits at the gateway to the Black Hills. The community art event and Taste of Custer listed on their schedule for the weekend implies a more interesting and creative town. We move on as it is a beautiful day and we are anxious to see the hills.

We enter the park and find ourselves at the Sylvan Lake parking lot, which is a beautiful spot. It seems a perfect place to park the Trekker, unload the Yamaha TW 200 trail/road bike off the back, and take off.

Needles highway is a beautiful winding road up through the black hills. It was a perfect day to be on the cycle on switchbacks and pony tails (the road makes a complete circle with the end of the circle going under the beginning). The rock formations are sharply upward as needles might be. There are tunnels that even the Trekker would have trouble negotiating. At one point, we could sit on a hill and see Mount Rushmore in the distance and another the faces are framed in the exit of a tunnel.

The entire afternoon we ride main roads as well as back roads. Whereas Colorado has mountains, these are smaller hills but ruggedly beautiful in their own way. There is pine beetle damage but the park is working to cut the dead trees.

There are no crowds although Harley riders are numerous. It is no wonder Sturgis has become a motorcycle mecca. The city is located near a great place to explore on a bike.

It is late afternoon before we get back to the Trekker. Steak and trimmings for dinner. Bill and Roxanne stop by to introduce themselves and talk a bit about the Roadtrek. They are not RVers but enjoy the outdoors and are interested in our small vehicle. We visit about their Iowa cattle ranch and the new bull they are on their way home from purchasing in Wyoming. Darkness settles in and we bid our new acquaintances goodbye. We still have the battery problem and word is there is a Wal Mart in Rapid City. We are off.

We find the Wal Mart, get the battery and spend the night in their parking lot. Our little Trekker is lost among the big (I mean big) RV rigs.

Friday morning we keep it simple with coffee and cereal. Since we are north, we decide on Deadwood as the morning’s destination. At one time, it was a bustling gold mining town nestled in a valley. It has a rich history of gambling and fancy ladies as a result of gold found in the surrounding streams and hills. When gaming was approved in 1989, stores such as JC Penneys closed and once again gambling is its mainstay.

I take $20 in cash thinking I would try my luck at gambling. Instead, we opt for a guided tour—money much better spent. Our guide is informed and personable. Of course, Deadwood is where Wild Bill Hickok was murdered. A sign on the trolley said it all, “This trolley is the only place in town that does not claim to be where Hickok was shot.” We did learn where it actually happened as well as facts about his life, Calamity Jane and the gold mining history of the town. Our experience is, skip all the gambling and take the tour.

After lunch at Deadwood, we park the Trekker at a little break in the road called Savory. Once again unloaded the TW and explored. The first stop is Roughlock falls. Yes!! A waterfall—actually a beautiful big one on top with a smaller one at the bottom.

I didn’t think this could be topped until we were poking around gravel backroads and saw a sign pointing to Cement Lookout. What a find. It is an old fire lookout with a beautiful surround view. The hills off in the distance looked black. A local man who also wandered up to the lookout said this was the reason for the name, “black hills.” He also told us this is where the locals come to see the trees when they reach their full color. He said they weren’t there yet. We are not surprised as peak tree color is an occurrence we seem to always just miss.

Later, we come upon Rod and Gun Campground. It was a beautiful location by a small stream and against a big cliff. There is an open spot. Since it is “first come, first serve,” we hurriedly ride back to the Trekker. Luckily, we get parked in a perfect spot and immediately scavenge for wood and start a fire. Cheese, fruit and wine. We agree, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Morning finds us still awed by the view of the sun peeking over the canyon. Another tip from a local said not to miss the waterfall behind the restaurant at Savory as it is not well marked. He is right, the waterfall is beautiful. Then on to today’s destination, Devils Tower.

Devils Tower

Devils Tower holds the distinction of being our first national monument, established in 1906. Many American Indian tribes hold the Tower as a sacred site. As we walk the trail around the base, it is awe-inspiring. How would early inhabitants explain this massive structure erupting from the surrounding plains? The popular modern explanation for its formation is that it is the remnant of a volcano, underground millions of years ago. Now the softer rocks surrounding the center have eroded away leaving the rock columns.

It is a windy day so we were sure no one would be climbing. No so, there were at least four climbing parties on the face. Information available told us more than 5,000 climbers from all over the world attempt Devils Tower each year. Speaking to the sensitivity of this group of athletes, most avoid climbing the month of June because that time is of religious significance to the Native American tribes of Lakota, Kiowa, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Crow.

It wasn't always "Devils Tower." Tribal stories about the monument's creation mentioned bear because the lines in the rock resembled bear claws. Early names included Bear Lodge (Mateo Teepee. A 1875 U. S. Geological Survey party led by Col. Richard I. Dodge called attention to the tower. Later, in a book written by Col. Dodge, he is credited with being the first to call it Devil's Tower, his interpretation of the Native American's "Bad God Tower."

We enjoy prairie dogs. So, on the way out of the 1,347 acre park, we spend time watching the inhabitants of the prairie dog town along the road. Of course, they are used to humans so they sit on top of their holes sounding the alert when we approach, but for the most part, do not move.

On the way back, we find a roadside area and enjoy a lunch of fresh eggplant, zucchini, and tomato stir-fry. We happened on the Saturday morning Farmer’s market in Spearfish earlier. Thankfully, the fresh vegetables are still plentiful

It is nearly dark when we enter the Custer State Park campground. In keeping with our habit of not making reservations, we do not have much hope in finding a place in the area adjoining the Buffalo Roundup booths and educational sites. To our amazement, there is a tent site available! Our RV is not much bigger than most SUVs so we are set. The park supervisor informs us another tent site will be available for the Sunday night.

Buffalo Roundup

Each year Custer State Park rangers and other interested people roundup the buffalo roaming freely in the park all year for vaccinations, health checks and culling. Several weeks after the roundup there is a public auction. In this way, the herd is healthy and the numbers stay constant.

In recent years, Custer State Park opens up the roundup for public viewing. Slated for Monday morning, the weekend it is “everything buffalo” in the park.

We walk to the art fair and chili cook-off on Sunday morning. The weather is beautiful—a perfect time to walk among the booths. The Buffalo Billfold Company has beautiful handbags made from buffalo hide. I decide on a small one that catches my eye mostly because of the snap made from a buffalo nickel. We enjoy visiting with Bill and Lauri Keitel. Bill, an accomplished musician, plays and sings a beautiful song (Irish folksong, I believe) on his guitar for a few of us standing around.

We learn about South Dakota native snakes and predator birds in the educational tent. The handlers and their animals are from the Reptile Gardens, voted one of the top ten roadside attractions in the United States. After listening to the presentations, we must come back to the Black Hills to visit the Botanical garden. They are professional and articulate.

Lunch, as one might imagine, is burgers made from pure buffalo meat. Grilled and hot, they are very good.

The Chili Cook Off next. Wow! Hot stuff. We didn’t stay to see who won, but our vote, by placing beans in a jar, is for personalities of people cooking rather than the taste of their chili. It is fun.

We decide to unload the TW and check out the location of the roundup in the morning. A beautiful sunset ride.

Up early Monday morning, along with hundreds of people in their cars. Yet, with the wide open space, it doesn’t seem crowded. The weather is perfect, we feel fortunate.

There are two viewing spots. Once again, we take our cue from a local resident who has attended the roundup previously and find a spot on the south viewing area.

We aren’t the only spectators. On a hill in the distance, we spot burros and antelope looking, as we are, to the horizon. Almost as if choreographed for a movie, we see a line of buffalo along the top of the ridge moving our way. We train our binoculars on the spectacular event of hundreds of magnificent animals moving in one direction. As they circle down into the valley, some of the horseback riders move aside for pickup trucks. Pushing the group into one small pen is a job. Buffalo are big enough to do whatever they want and some of them do. The riders double back to turn the stragglers back to the herd. They ride in front, crack the whip and then get out of the way. Sometimes the buffalo turn—sometimes not.Photo courtesy of Custer State Park

At the end, the herders push hard. They are close by this time. The horns and thick manes, the sound and feel of thunder from hooves, snorts and dust. For a moment, everyone is quiet. We are in another time.

We will come again. It is that beautiful.

There is nothing that can top this experience. We turn the Trekker south toward Kansas and head home.

Wow, that story really makes me want to take another big road trip. We spent almost 3 weeks driving out west from PA, stopping at all the places of interest. It was the best trip we ever had. America is beautiful. I wish we had gotten off the main roads more. Time is always against you. We "hoteled" it. We thought next time we would rent one of those small RVs and do it more like you did with your Trekker. Hotels costs so much now I think it would have paid for itself doing it that way. I love campfires and cooking on the camp stove with camp coffee. Roasting marshmallows. Your photos are great. That waterfall would be quite a surprise in that area. The photo courtesy of the Custer State Park of the buffalo drive is amazing!
Linda-- You should rent an RV & hit the road. I would love reading about it, as I have your trips in the past.

With your background with horses, you would love the buffalo roundup.
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