Sunday, March 21, 2010

Needles Highway

American Nomad Archived Entry 

August 27th 2009

Today was a jam-packed day as we braved the roads of the Needles Highway, picnicked by Sylvan Lake, took a hike and embarked on the Wildlife Tour once again.  

My mom and I woke up at seven.  The air was frigid and it was all I could do to warm up. We drove to Legion Lodge to split an affordable breakfast of two eggs over medium with bacon and hash browns.  

After breakfast we drove into the town of Custer to do laundry at The Lost Sock, a nice coin laundry.  While waiting for our clothes to tumble, my mom and I organized our car (we brought way too much stuff!) and planned our day.  

We finished up the laundry by ten-thirty and proceeded to travel to Sylvan Lake via the Needles Highway.  

The Needles Highway is considered one of the most scenic drives in America and is a must when visiting Custer S.P.  The Highway follows a fourteen-mile route filled with hairpin turns as it transverses through spectacular scenery of meadows, mountain vistas, birch, aspen, the elusive limber pine and most importantly rugged granite peaks. A mix of wildlife such as deer, turkey and the occasional mountain goat inhabit the area.

The highway is named for the needle like granite formations, which fill the topography of the northwestern region of Custer State Park. The term Needles refers to the eroded granite pillars, towers, and spires, which have been chiseled by years of erosion and geologic change. 

The roadway was carefully planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback.  The U.S. Senator from South Dakota at the time of the highway's construction, Peter Norbeck, wanted to create a scenic Black Hills roadway that travelers could enjoy at a slower speed. He wanted visitors to enjoy the beauty and wildlife in the area, without hurting the natural resources of the hills. Construction was completed in 1922. It's important to note that impatient drivers looking for a sixty to seventy mile per hour speed should stay clear of this spectacular parkway.  With curves and roadside cliff side plunges, The Needles is meant to be driven at a maximum speed of twenty miles per hour.  I had to put our car in second gear in order to avoid over-braking as unexpected curves crept up on us.

I can honestly say this is one of my favorite things we've done in Custer thus far.  The scenery is sweeping and rock formations such are unique.  I particularly enjoyed 'The Needles Eye,' a granite spire, which rising forty feet in the air and has a four foot wide slit.  

There are plenty of turnouts and scenic pull outs for photo ops.  Many of Custer's best hikes and rock climbing spots are centered in The Needles.  I recommend Little Devils Tower, a moderate 6 mile round trip hike, which ascends Harney Peak (tallest peak east of the Rockies).  The trail is tough, but worth the effort for views of the Cathedral Spires, a unique Needle formation and prime geologic example of joint-controlled weathering of granite.   

It took us an hour to reach popular park tourist spot Sylvan Lake, considered the 'crown jewel of Custer.'   Sylvan Lake is positioned  in the northwestern corner of Custer State Park in an idyllic spot amidst Mountain peaks, a lush valley and man made lake surrounded by natural granite blocks of stone.  It was created in 1881 when Theodore Reder built a dam across Sunday Gulch.  In 1895 a Victorian Hotel was built on the property.  The original hotel burned down in 1935 and the Sylvan Lake Lodge was rebuilt later that same year under the advisement of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who surveyed the area and suggested the Lodge should be placed in it's current location to accentuate the surrounding scenery.

The Sylvan Lake Lodge is situation on a ridge overlooking the lake and a forest of pine and spruce.  The architecture is modern rustic with lots of native granite stone and hardwood.  I highly recommend touring the hotel's interior, particularly the large lobby, which is scattered with leather vintage chairs, a high ceiling and picture windows, making you feel like you're in a majestic tree house.  The lunch and dinner menu within the lodge is a casual gourmet with a quality wine list...Not hungry, but up for a cocktail or just a soda, step onto the large porch, breath the mountain air and take in the view of Sylvan Lake.

Following a brief tour of the Sylvan Lake Lodge, we drove to the lake, nabbed a parking spot and set up shop at a nearby picnic area for a lunch of cheese wraps, juice and raisins.  We are running low on cash as we still have another week before we get paid so budgeting on food has been key.

After lunch we hiked around Sylvan Lake and enjoyed the beach.  Sylvan Lake offers swimming, hiking, rock climbing and lots of picnicking opportunities.  It is home to a old-time general store and the nearby historic Sylvan Lake Lodge.

After two hours of picnicking, hiking and relaxing the mosquitoes got to be too much (50 bites in half and hour) and we decided to head on over to the Game Lodge district and Park Visitor's Center...for the next portion of todays excitement stay tuned for another entry!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Hot Springs S.D. and Hot Car

Archived Entry for August 26th 2009 Part II:

By the time we left Wind Cave the air was hot, a skin-splintering prairie heat that kept getting hotter.  My mom and I opted to drive south eleven miles to the historic town of Hot Springs S.D. and let me tell you that this portion of our adventure was filled with drama and somewhat unwelcome excitement. 

Hot Springs S.D. is a charming town with beautiful nineteenth century buildings and Native American and Old West history.  It was recently named as a 2009 Distinctive Destination by the National Trust for Historic Preservation due to its mix of history and the towns commitment to preservation and building a better community.  

Hot Springs is an excellent day trip for those vacationing in Custer State Park and or The Black Hills.  It's topography is contrasts to the lushness of the Black Hills near Mt. Rushmore and is a mix of prairie and foothills.  The site was sacred to many native peoples due to the natural warm springs within the town's boundaries.  These springs are warm, not really hot anymore, and offer healing properties.  

Sandstone structures dating from the 1880s still line the downtown streets.  Although the down economy has forced some restaurants to close up shop - this town is still full of life - with historic hotels, over 400 hotel rooms in a town of roughly 3,000.  Lots of historic bathhouses and spas are open for business, and a nice downtown trail showcases the warm springs and natural beauty of the region.  I suggest by starting off your tour of Hot Springs at the 1890s Railroad Depot, which has been transformed into a very nice visitor center.  

Area attractions include Evan's Plunge - a water park using the healing warm spring water the town is named for, The Black Hills Horse Sanctuary - where the movie Hidalgo was filmed, a golf course, and the Mammoth Site.

My mom and I really wanted to see the Mammoth Site, but we are a little strapped for cash, and all of our money goes for the campsite, gas and food.  However we still wanted to at least stop by the Mammoth Site visitor center to pick up some brochures and learn what we could about a significant natural history site.

The Mammoth Site is one of the most significant Natural Historical sites in the world, and is a worthy detour for anyone in the area.  Located just outside downtown Hot Springs is the site of a karst sinkhole, which contains the remains of fauna and flora preserved by entrapment during the Pleistocene era and Ice Age.

During the Ice Age, mammoth, camel, and giant short-faced bear roamed the Great Plains of North America and this portion of South Dakota. The Mammoth site's history begins 26,000 years B.C. when the cavern at the site collapsed, resulting in a steep karst sinkhole, running 65-feet deep, and at one point was 120 by 150 wide at the surface.  The same warm artesian-fed springs, which are present in the area today, created a pond in the sink hole, which attracted wildlife.  From time to time, animals who stopped by for water would fall into the sinkhole after drinking water as they were unable to gain a foothold to escape.  The sinkhole was a deathtrap. 

The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs S.D. is the preeminent site for Mammoth research and is the largest mammoth paleontological site in the world with over fifty-five Mammoths found to date.  The majority of mammoth remains have been identified as Columbian Mammoths, however Woolly Mammoths have been found in the sinkhole as well.

The Mammoth Site is a non-profit research agency founded in 1974, with the advent of the discovery of the natural history site.  Year round scientists from around the world working to excavate fossils and study the natural history of the area.  Admission is $25, and gives tourists a first hand look at excavation, Mammoth fossils, and an informative thirty minute tour.  It is open year-round!

For more Information visit the Mammoth Site

After a brief tour of the site, we couldn't afford the price of admission - not because it was over priced we just didn't have the funds readily available, my mom and I stopped by the nearby National Wildlife Visitor Center office at Buffalo Gap - which is the base for the National Grasslands and Prairie.  

The rangers were very friendly and suggested we drive south ten-miles to beautiful Cascade Falls, a popular picnic area and watering hole for locals. My mom and I thanked them for their advice and headed over to Cascade Falls.  It was then that our trouble began.

It is important to note that we are fully out of the mountains and into HOT and I mean TORRID HOT prairie, filled with more grasshoppers than you've ever seen, and tall grasses and sunburned skin just by sitting in the car...HOT and flat land.  The sky is big, the grass tall and at times you feel lost.  This topography makes sense if you look at the map - we were just forty minutes away from Nebraska and in the middle of the Great Plains.

The signage for Cascade Falls wasn't the best, and we found ourselves a little lost.  We kept driving thinking the Park was just another mile or so, but all we found were miles of desolation, ranches, and cows.  The heat was brutal, and our air conditioner just ran hot air.  

It was about this time I happened to look down at the dash and it wasn't good.  I had noticed the car had been making a gurgling sound in the past few minutes and I now knew why - the water gauge was way atop the danger zone. Like a scene from a movie our car was overheating in the middle of a desolate prairie in an area with no cell-phone reception and the chance of cars passing by.  It was time to PRAY!  

I pulled into a turnout for a ranch and we let the car cool off for about twenty minutes, however the heat on the prairie and splintering sun beaming down on the hood of the Oldsmobile only made things worse.  My mom and I decided our best option was to try to drive the twenty some miles back to Hot Springs and get to a service station.  

As we drove north toward the town of Hot Springs, 'Warning' Lights came on and flashed, making me only more anxious.  I kept praying that we could 1) Reach a gas station and 2) get somewhere with cell-phone reception so I could call AAA.  We had $150 for two more weeks, barely enough to pay for a rental car for a few days let alone get the car fixed.  Panic could easily have set in, but I kept my faith and God heard my prayers.

About ten-minutes later we saw the parking lot for Cascade Falls ( yes we'd passed it thinking it was a turn out, as the falls aren't visible from the road, they are down a cliff backing up to the parking lot.)  We decided it best to stop as the car could only go a max of twenty-miles per hour...

Plan A - We waited ten minutes, parking the car under a sole shade tree with hopes it would cool off - not so would start period at the end of that period...

Plan B- I had tried Triple AAA, but had been on hold for 25 minutes...My mom went down to the falls and swimming hole, which is very beautiful - the water is comprised of the healing Hot Springs and if you watch for Poison Ivy cliff side - is a nice place to stop.  She filled up a Nalgene bottle with water and we dumped it a top the car hood, hoping cool water would cool down the car - didn't work....

Plan C - God steps in!  I know some people don't believe in answered prayers, but I don't know a better example of God's answered prayers.  Just as we felt destined to beg and grovel for a Western Union express from our relatives (who would not be happy to comply) my mom started talking with a fellow traveler named Summerhall.  He was in his sixties, traveling from Dallas on to Yellowstone.  In a past life he'd been a car mechanic and offered to look at the car. 

He quickly confirmed  that the water was low and the car was overheating.  In some weird twist of fate, Summerhall had ten gallons of water jugs in his car (for camping), more than enough to refill the water in our car and get us on the road again.  After pouring water in the gauge until it was full, the gauge went down to nearly zero.  He then double-checked the engine and said we were good to drive home and wouldn't have anymore problems with the car.  How many people have that expertise and carry that much water in his car (camping or not).  It was serendipity and I am still grateful for Mr. Summerhall and God's answered prayers.

He followed us into Hot Springs.  My mom and I parked the car in town in a shaded area and let it sit for an hour to fully cool off.  We took this time to explore Hot Springs and eat some ice-cream in an old-time fountain in town known as The Blue Buffalo.  We also explored a historic Episcopal Church in town and toured the Visitor's Center.

We drove our car back to Custer around five-thirty.  In what turned out to be a crazy day we were happy to relax over a picnic dinner at Legion Lodge in Custer before heading back to our campsite at Center Lake...

For more on Hot Springs:

Hot Springs Visitor Info

*Pictures - Top Left - Prairie and Pronghorn, Top Right - Downtown Hot Springs Trail

Wind Cave National Park

*This is an archived journal entry from August 26th 2009. I'm dividing it up into two post as it was a crazy day with lots of activity from a trip to Wind Cave National Park, Hot Springs SD and an overheated car! I hope you enjoy the entries...

August 26th 2009:

Woke up this morning at 6:15 a.m. and loaded everything into our car. It looks to be a brilliant day with blue sky and relative humidity. Our plan is to drive south to Wind Cave National Park, another large cave in Southwestern South Dakota, and then onto the historic town of Hot Springs. Wind Cave is situated approximately thirty miles south of the Legion Lodge. The park boundaries of Custer and Wind Cave overlap, making for a gorgeous drive through a wide range of topography ranging from mountains to prairie.

As we headed toward Wind Cave we encountered an abundance wildlife including wild turkeys, mule deer, bison, and an entire herd of Pronghorn! I have noticed that the best time to encounter wildlife is early in the morning, close to dawn or late in the afternoon, close to dusk. As always be respectful of wildlife and admire them at a distance.

On the way to Wind Cave we stopped for breakfast at Blue Bell, a tourist area of Custer with lodging, food, and a gift shop. Blue Bell is situated at the base of Mount Coolidge, and straddles French Creek and a sea of Ponderosa Pine. It was built in the 1920s by a Bell Telephone executive, and named for Bell's company namesake - its 'Blue Bell.' The owner of Blue Bell deeded over the land and his ranch to Custer. Blue Bell is picturesque, and another great spot for families wanting an old-west experience. The campground and cabins are very nice and on-site activities such as ranger talks, hikes, horse-back riding and western chuck wagon ridges.

We were seated in a corner booth in Tatanka Dining Room. The Dining Room, which was recently remodeled in 2008, offers delectable and affordable breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for any palette. Specialties include burgers, steaks, salads, and trout. The dining room is perfect for families with plenty of comfortable seating and ambiance. The decor reminds me of an old west hunting lodge with hardwood floors and a stone fireplace. An adjoining lounge offers live music at night and an gorgeous oak bar for adults to indulge in a glass of wine and appetizers.

For breakfast my mom and I split a cowboy breakfast of steak and eggs, homemade hash browns, orange juice and coffee. It filled us up for an jam-packed day ahead. The service was upbeat and friendly.

After our scrumptious breakfast my mom I continued south to Wind Cave. The topography changed drastically from mountains to high grassland prairie. It took about twenty-minutes to exit Custer's boundaries and reach the entrance to Wind Cave. The area is quiet, except for the rustling of the wind, which is strong and ferocious at times. It whispers like a melody. The sun is harsh and the sky takes up one's entire peripheral vision...It's a tapestry of color, geology, and wildlife. Wildlife teems here with elk, bison, pronghorn, mountain lion, coyote, bobcats, foxes, and prairie dogs. The grasslands are filled with wildflowers and grasshoppers, so as lonely as the seemingly endless prairie may seem it is full with life.

Prairie dogs are abundant in the grasslands surrounding Wind Cave. Prairie Dog towns line the roads, and you really need to be careful not to hit them as they often cross the road. They need prairie dog crossing signs! Prairie dogs are the most amazing creatures, the way they interact and look after each other!

About seven minutes after entering the National Park we reached the cave entrance and Visitor Center. Wind Cave was discovered by the Bingham Brothers in 1881 after they heard a loud whistling noise from a small hole in ground, which subsequently knocked Jesse Bingham's hat off his head. It is now known that the tiny hole was the only natural entrance to Wind Cave. The wind whistling out of the hole begged curiosity so a few days later Jesse returned to show his friends. Oddly enough the wind switched directions and this time his hat was sucked into the cave. It is known today that the direction of the wind is related to the difference in atmospheric pressure between the cave and the surface.

The first person reported to have entered the cave was Charlie Crary in the fall of 1881. In 1890 the South Dakota Mining Company filed a claim on the cave and J.D. McDonald was hired to manage the mine. The McDonald family quickly realized there was no money to be made in mining at Wind Cave, however they could make a profit by giving cave tours and selling formations from the cave. They filed a homestead claim over the opening and worked on improving a man-made entrance and enlarging passageways for tours.

J.D.'s son, Alvin was intrigued with the cave and spent a majority of his time exploring its maze and mapping out its passageways. He kept a diary on his findings, which is still referenced today.

In the summer of 1891, an investor named John Stabler formed a partnership with the McDonald's to form the Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company. Cave passages were widened and wooden staircases were installed. A hotel was built near the cave entrance and a stage coach provided rides to the cave. In 1893, Alvin died of typhoid fever and a feud ensued between the the McDonalds and the Stablers.

In December 1899, the Department of the Interior decided that since no mining nor proper homesteading had taken place, neither party had any legal claim to the cave. In 1901, the land around the cave was withdrawn from homesteading.

Wind Cave National Park was established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, making it the seventh oldest National Park in the world and the first cave to be designated a National Park. Wind Cave lies underneath a vast prairie with the mountains of the Black Hills cradling its core. Wind Cave is very unique in the fact it has a special kind of cave formations called 'boxwork' and 'frostwork.' Approximately 95% of the world's boxwork formations are found in Wind Cave.

'Box Work': Boxwork is commonly composed of thin blades of the mineral calcite that project from cave walls or ceilings that intersect one another at various angles, forming a box-like or honeycomb pattern. The boxwork fins once filled cracks in the rock before the host cave formed. As the walls of the cave began to dissolve away, the more resistant vein and crack fillings did not, or at least dissolved at a slower rate than the surrounding rock, leaving the calcite fins projecting from the cave surfaces.

'Frost Work': is a type of speleothem (cave formation) composed of acicular ("needle-like") growths almost always composed of aragonite (a polymorph of calcite) or calcite replaced by aragonite [1]. It is a variety of anthodite. In some caves frostwork may grow on top of cave popcorn or boxwork.

It is a three-dimensional maze cave, recognized for having the most passage volume per square mile compared to any cave system in the world. It is the second longest cave system in the world with 119.58 of charted passageways, and known length of 151.04 miles (more miles discovered each year). Interesting to note that an average of four new miles of cave is discovered each year. Above ground, the park includes the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the United States.

The Visitor Center offers a variety of exhibits regarding the cave itself, and its unusual formations. It is also where you sign up for a variety of cave tours. All caves tours cost at least $7 and no discount for park pass owners. Plan accordingly and call ahead to reserve tickets, especially if you have a large family. The fee is worth it however for the magnificent formations.

I recommend taking your time viewing the V.C. history and wildlife exhibits. A twenty-minute orientation film is also a good introduction to the Cave and Park land covering it.

Cave Tours: There are five cave tours varying in intensity, features and duration. I recommend the Garden of Eden tour, which is the easiest to maneuver with only 150 steps and gives a great introduction the cave. It lasts just over an hour. Another good option is the Natural Cave tour with 300 steps and at 1 1/4 minutes offers views of boxwork, popcorn and frostwork.

Hiking: There are three hiking trails within the Park boundary. This is a great way to get off the beaten path, and immerse yourself in the flora and fauna of the prairie. I recommend bringing lots of water for any prairie hike and sunscreen as the sun is strong, even if the temperature is not that extreme.

We finished up at Wind Cave around eleven. We decided to head onto Hot Springs, although we were tempted to detour on a prairie hike...for Part II of this entry look for a subsequent post.

Information on Wind Cave N.P.

*Frostwork is shown in photo above.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Jewel Cave National Monument

Tuesday August 25th 2009 - Archived Entry:

We woke up to see two Mule deer grazing on the threshold of the forest before the pair gracefully disappeared into the woods. Early morning is quiet and peaceful in Custer State Park. As I got out of the car I breathed in the fresh mountain air. The time on my cell phone read 8:30. After getting freshened up I headed over to our picnic table and ate a breakfast of Rice Chex and drank our last Diet Coke.

After several hours of relaxing and organizing our campsite my mom and I drove into the town of Custer around eleven to find out what's going on with our car, which has been making an unusual humming noise when the engine is turned off. A local mechanic was able to quickly diagnose it as a leveler problem and nothing too major to worry about. Thank God! With a car this old and with so many miles it's hard to know how much life is left in it. It is a great car and I hope we have it many more miles on our journey.

Once we got the car checked out we decided to eat at Cattleman's, a Custer establishment before heading to nearby Jewel Cave National Monument. Cattleman's is one of the best restaurants in The Black Hills and one of the best meals I've eaten for the money period. t has a great menu comprised of Ribs, BBQ Chicken, Steaks and Salads. The prices are mostly under $10 and the food is high quality. For under $20 we feasted on two delicious meals. I opted for the BBQ Chicken, hand cut fries and side salad, and my mom ordered ribs. The atmosphere is family style dining with a very friendly staff. They also have a nice gift shop with South Dakota themed merchandise.

A Little History...

After lunch we headed to Jewel Cave National Monument, which lies 16 miles west of Custer off Highway 16. With 149 miles of mapped passageways, Jewel Cave is the second longest cave in the world, after Mammoth Cave in KY. It was discovered in 1900 by Frank and Albert Michaud, two local homesteaders who lived in the area. While exploring Hell's Canyon, a valley adjacent to the cave, the brothers noticed a small hole in the canyon wall, too small for human entry, with a blast of cold air coming out.  The brothers subsequently enlarged the hole with dynamite and entered the cave with Charles Bush, a friend of the family.  Together they discovered crawl ways and low-ceiling rooms coated with beautiful calcite crystals, which they described as sparkling like "jewels" in lantern light. 

The jewel like formations in the cave, calcite crystals, have little commercial value, but the brothers filed a mining claim in Custer in Oct. 1900 with the intent to open up the natural wonder as a tourist attraction.  During the following decade, they constructed a trail within the cave and built a lodge on the rim of Hell Canyon to attract visitors.  Unfortunately a lack of local population and the isolated location didn't bring in the expected tourists.  

However, a lack of people in this region and the difficulty of travel at that time made the tourist venture anything but a financial success. Frank Michaud bought out Charles Bush's share of the cave in 1905 for $300. For a while, Frank continued to work at the cave, exploring and keeping up the annual assessment work.  

A local campaign to preserve Jewel Cave and prevent future destruction of this monument culminated in President Theodore listing the cave as a National Monument in 1908.  The Michaud brothers sold their claim to the government for $750. 

Although Jewel Cave was designated as a National Monument as early as 1908, the National Park Service did not begin offering tours of the cave until 1939. Tourists to Jewel Cave today can still visit the  log cabin became home to the monument's first permanent ranger in 1941. 

As recently as 1959, it was believed that Jewel Cave only had two miles of of cave to be explored.  And although the known cave was beautifully decorated with calcite spar crystals, the shortness of the tour made someone wonder if this small cave was truly a monument worthy of national significance.  That all changed when geologist Dwight Deal enlisted the aid of two rock-climbing enthusiasts, Herb and Jan Conn to help explore the cave.  The Conn's were dedicated to exploring and mapping new passages.  By the late 1970s the Conn's had mapped over 64 miles of cave trail before retiring.  Spelunkers continue to explore the cave and to date 149 miles of KNOWN passages have been mapped out.  Many of the passages are very treacherous and only a few cave tours are open to the public, each offering a unique view of this exquisite cave.

The Canyon Trail

It was one o'clock when we officially arrived at Jewel Cave N.M.  The entrance of Jewel Cave sits atop of a steep ridge top and offers amazing views of the nearby mountains and prairie.  After parking our car we headed up to the ticket booth to pick out a Cave tour and order our tickets.  It turned out that all of the cave tours were booked until 4:25 p.m.  In the summer Jewel Cave is a popular attraction and it helps to call for cave tour reservations.  Since we decided on the spur of the moment to tour the cave, waiting a few hours to get in was fine.

To pass the time we opted to hike the Canyon Trail, which starts off at the Visitor's Center and winds down into Lithograph Canyon and then into Hell Canyon before looping back by the original cave entrance and back to the visitor's center.  The hike is 3.5 miles and takes two hours.  Bring plenty of water as this hike goes through Hell Canyon, a dry valley floor where the sun is fierce.

The scenery on this trail shows a variety of topography.  As we climbed down the mountainside we were immersed in a sea of greenery and Ponderosa Pine.  At the bottom of the hill, Lithograph Canyon becomes visible.  The small limestone canyon is named due to lithograph's on the rock.  It quickly turns into the larger Hell Canyon, an open prairie, filled with direct sunlight and few trees on the valley floor.  A creek appears and disappears from time to time alongside the path.  The path is filled with tall grasses, and cradled by a gorgeous collection of colorful wildflowers.  While hiking we saw tons of Mule Deer and lots of butterflies!

Because of the heat, hovering close to 95 with the sun beating down, we stopped every ten minutes for water or when we caught sight of the rare shaded Ponderosa pine.  After hiking a good hour on the valley floor the trail twisted upward over a set of steep inclines, by going directly up the canyon wall.  As the trail leveled off, high atop the surrounding area we passed the original entrance to Jewel Cave discovered in 1900.  One of the cave tours explores this entrance by lantern light. 

A few minutes later we entered a forested area where the original Park Ranger log cabin is stationed.  A Ranger was on duty and told us a little more on the history of the cave and discussed the hike we were treading.  From the log cabin it was still another 9/10th of a mile back to the Visitor Center.  All in all this was an enjoyable hike with stunning views of wildlife, prairie, and the exterior of the limestone cliffs, which make the interior cave possible.

Cave Tour

After picking up  few postcards in the gift shop and loading up on water from the nearby foundation we started our Cave Tour.  Out of the many tour options the only one open was The Discovery Tour, a short but informative look at Jewel Cave.  We had an amazing guide, a female in her mid-twenties who offered an interesting and entertaining tour particularly for the families present.  We took the elevator down to a large, airy room with a temperature around fifty to sixty degrees.  The twenty minute talk introduced us to Jewel Cave's natural and cultural history and we were able to view one large room of the cave filled two types of calcite crystal,  the jewels, which give the cave its namesake. 

The geology of the cave revolves around water.   Jewel Cave was formed by the gradual dissolution of limestone by stagnant, acid-rich water. The water caused  a network of cracks that had formed during the uplift of the Black Hills approximately 60 million years ago. The layer of calcite crystals that covers much of the cave walls was created by the re-deposition of calcite from water saturated with the mineral.

After the water that formed the cave drained, speleothems (cave formations) began to form. Jewel Cave contains all the common types of calcite formations, such as stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and frostwork, although not in the same abundance as other well-known caves. The dry parts of the cave contain some formations created by the deposition of gypsum, such as gypsum needles, beards, flowers, and spiders. Finally, Jewel Cave contains a very rare formation called a hydromagnesite balloon. Those are created when gas of an unknown source inflates a pasty substance formed by the precipitation of magnesium.

When the tour concluded I thanked our tour guide for such a fantastic introduction to Jewel Cave.  I hope to revisit the Cave and take another tour focusing on a different area of the cave in the future!  

After leaving Jewel Cave, my mom and I made a brief stop in Custer to get gas before heading back into the park.  On the way back to Center Lake we stopped for ice and milk at the Legion Lake store.  We also each got a cup of Land O'Lakes ice cream (Moose Tracks and Praline Pecan).  I can honestly say it's the creamiest and most delicious ice-cream around :)  

For more info on Jewel Cave check out the NPS site! 

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Wildlife Loop!

Archived Entry from American Nomad Experiment: 08/24/09 Part II:

Custer State Park's Wildlife Loop is a must for any family trip to the Black Hills.  I have been to many National and State Parks and I can honestly say you won't find a better scenic drive than the Custer Loop.  The scenery varies from extremes of arid plains fit for prairie dogs to high rocky and forested cliffs perfect for Mountain Goats and Mountain Lions.  Custer's wildlife and foliage is diverse.  The reason wildlife and plants have flourished here is because of Custer's land and wildlife management - considered one of if not the best in the nation.  They go to extremes to ensure the animals and forests are perfectly managed to ensure nature will be able to work at its best.

There are two ways to start the Loop: either east from Legion toward the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center or South towards Blue Bell.  My mom and I opted to go the southern route first.    This route starts by going through a high curvy over pass offering views of the surrounding valley and adjacent mountain peaks.  It was here that we saw a few Mule Deer gracefully leaping up a nearby bluff.  We continued on, passing Blue Bell, another lodging area with camping, cabins and a delicious restaurant.  

Shortly after Blue Bell the topography changes from mountainous forestry to open arid prairie.  The plains are vast and underbrush is coupled with wildflowers.  A Prairie Dog town is listed on the map, however has since been abandoned as flooding forced the prairie dogs to move further east on the wildlife loop.  Yes it turns out prairie dogs can swim!  A neat hike is roadside aptly named:  "The Prairie Trail"  This 3 mile loop gives hikers access to a mix of riparian and grassland habitats and one of the most beautiful wildflower displays in America.  A worthwhile hike.  We hope to do it during our stay  - I would advise that you bring lots of water and try hiking at dawn or late afternoon as even through the car windshield the sun blazes on you like a wildfire.

As we drove through the prairie landscape we encounter the Pronghorn.  They are so graceful and agile - fast becoming a wildlife favorite of me and my mom!  We also saw begging burros - a Custer Tradition and one animal in the park you can get up close and personal with.  These burros are descendants of domesticated burros who used to take tourists up to Harney Peak and other area locations.  They were then released into the wild and these are their offspring.  They are friendly and love causing traffic jams as they "beg" for food.  As always show them respect and they will respect you.  I got really peeved when an impatient driver tried to maul them all down.  Parks aren't for speed and it irks me when people are in such a hurry they put wildlife and themselves at risk.  

As the loop curves northward toward Game Lodge the Valley mixes more with forest and creeks, as mountains and cliffs cradled the valley floor.  It was at Game Lodge we finally ran across the herd of Bison.  Custer has one herd and except for a few lone bulls they all move around together and when they camp at Game Lodge they take the place over.  In a Buffalo jam it's important to be patient and respect the wildlife.  Honking at them won't make them move any faster, it will actually scare them and could cause an attack.  They know you're there and are working on getting out of the way - just enjoy the ambiance and be patient - you're on vacation after all :)

After the wildlife loop we made a quick stop at Legion's General Store to load up on ice and milk before heading back to the campground.  After taking a shower I journaled by lantern light until the bugs got to be too much to handle. Not as many people here tonight as many kids are back in school this time of year.  There is a nice Mennonite family across the way from us.  They are very friendly and their kids are so polite!  

I put up my journal and try to get some sleep.  Our car has been making a funny humming noise every time the engine is off - I think it's the leveler, but we're going to take it into Custer (the town) tomorrow to find out what's up the car.

Here's a brief description on Custer Wildlife:

White-Tailed Deer: White-tailed deer live mainly in the timberlands.  As its name implies, the whitetail deer has white hair on the underside of its tail.  When the animal runs, the tail is flipped up and looks like a waving flag.

Mule Deer: These deer are named for their large ears.  They have black-tipped tails, which are short and narrow, and are carried down when the deer runs.  They jump as if bouncing.

Mountain Goats: The mountain goats in Custer are mainly visible on Harney Peak or outside of the park in Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse.  The Mountain Goat was not found in SD until 192 when it was introduced to the Black Hills.  They populate the granite outcroppings and crags around the Needles.  The mountain got is unique to North America and not a true goat.  They are all while with a dense wool undercoat and long outer coat of hair.  Both sexes have slender, sharp, black horns.  I haven't seen one in Custer, but I've been up and close with a few in Glacier and Yellowstone in MT and WY.  They are neat animals!  They have perfect footing for living atop crags and eating alpine shrubbery.

Bison (or American Buffalo): Custer is home to nearly 1500 head of North American bison.  Bison can grow to 6 feet tall and weigh more than 2000 pounds.  They have a short tail and a tassel with a hump at the shoulders, curved black hons on the sides of the head and dense shaggy dark brown and black hair around the head and neck, resembling a beard.  Bison used to range in the millions in North America, but populations had dwindled to less than a 1000 by 1900. Early Park enthusiast Peter Norbeck recognized the problem and in 1914 brought Bison to what would become Custer State Park to live on a Game Sanctuary.  The 36 head originally introduced escalated to a population of 2,500 by 1940.  Soon they had over population problems and therefore began the Buffalo Round-up an annual event, in which park bison older than ten years are sold at auction to ensure that the population gene pool stays healthy and is managed appropriately.

Pronghorn: Often incorrectly called antelope, live mainly on the open grasslands. The name pronghorn is derived from the bucks large pronged horns.  They have broad white stripes across a reddish brown coat.  Known for their remarkable endurance, these animals can run up to 40 mph for great distances.

Bighorn Sheep: One of the coolest animals around.  They are distinguishable by their  rounded horns.  The males thick and curled, the womens smaller and not as curled.  The South Dakota Bighorn sheep became extinct in 1922 and it was decided to reintroduce the animal to Custer State Park.  Unfortunately in recent years the population has dwindled to 18 as the entire herd caught a cause of the flu from farm livestock accidentally smuggled into the area.  They are visible, but have a tough fight to keep their population strong.  Custer has given as many as they could flu treatment shots to ensure their sustainability.

Prairie Dogs: My favorite animal :) the black-tailed prairie dog is found on the dry upland prairie and is a rodent that lives in large social groups called towns.  The round mound of dirt surrounding the prairie dog hole keeps rain water from running into the burrow and serves as an observation post to watch for danger.


Mountain Lions are in the park but rarely seen, when visible it is usually at night

Bobcats: also nocturnal and rarely seen

Wild Turkeys 

For more info on the Park and it's wildlife check out the digital Tatanka Guide

Grace Coolidge and Legion Lake Hikes

August 24th 2009: Archived Entry from the American Nomad Experiment

Woke up around eight a.m. to a blue sky and warm breeze.  Monday looked to be another gorgeous day in Custer State Park.  A few minutes after waking up, the Camping Attendants stopped by and we paid for another night at our campsite.  For the next hour and a half my mom enjoyed relaxing at the picnic table, eating a breakfast of cereal and raisins.  I also had a Diet Coke - I'm sorry, but I'm shamelessly addicted to Diet Coke with Splenda.

At a quarter to ten we decided to go on a nearby hike entitled the Grace Coolidge Walk-In Fishing area.  The hike is named after President Coolidge's wife Grace.  Senator Peter Norbeck, an advocate of Custer State Park and the SD Senator during the founding of Mt. Rushmore and Coolidge's tenure invited Coolidge to spent his three week vacation along with Grace in Custer at the State Game Lodge, which we will frequent later this week.  Norbeck's goal was convincing the President of the importance of Mt. Rushmore and its need for funding.  

Coolidge and his wife Grace fell in love with the Black Hills and decided to extend their three-week tenure in Custer to an entire summer turning the State Game Lodge into his Presidential headquarters "or  'The Summer White House" for three months.  Needless to say Cool Cal was impressed enough to help push through Mt. Rushmore Production in 1927.

 This trail follows Coolidge Creek from Center Lake parking lot trail head to the Grace Coolidge campground 3 miles away.  It is a there and back hike (6 miles total), which is mostly flat.  One thing I will say about this hike is that it is geared toward fishermen and you face many large creek crossings en route to the campground. Be prepared to get wet, as you will at times be faced with knee high water.  

The trout stream offers a riparian environment - and is also an excellent trail to examine the mix of prairie meets valley meets water foliage.  Beautiful wildflowers were present trailside along with thick underbrush.  Large Boulders and Pinnacles of thick gray stone cradled the trail and added to the phenomenal beauty.

We hiked for a mile and half in before opting to turn around.  Even though I had on water proof shoes I was in shorts and not particularly geared up for precarious creek crossings.  I still thoroughly enjoyed what became a three mile hike.

After the hike we ate lunch at the Legion Lake Lodge.  I checked my email and our bank account, which isn't in great shape, but we are on super-budget so we'll make it work.  We split a bacon-cheeseburger and fries and drank water.  

After lunch we went on another hike around nearby Legion Lake.  The Legion Lake Loop is roughly a mile and a half and moderate hike (lots of steep inclines and Poison Ivy - yes Poison Ivy is fervent here).  It loops around Legion Lake and offers great views of the surrounding area.  

As we started to hike we saw two Bison crossing the road.  I will be discussing Bison in detail in my next entry.  Bison are North America's largest land mammal weighing over 2000 pounds and although they look docile they can run at speeds of 30 miles per hour.  In my experience with Bison (which is a lot since I used to work at Yellowstone and had a bison sleep by my window every night nicknamed 'George') they are interested in humans and like humans otherwise they wouldn't frequent high traffic tourist spots (especially in YNP), however they deserve serious RESPECT.  They will not attack you (Gore you) unless they feel threatened.  They don't like to be approached or touched by humans. And can you blame them?  How would you feel if some stranger at the mall came up to you and starting poking at you and pulling your hair - you'd push them away!  Bison appreciate humans, but as wild animals they need their space.  They don't mind a photo opt from afar, but they don't want an up close and personal head shot either.  Stay at least 25 yards from Bison at all times - no matter what.  If you see one on the road - keep your distance and let them cross.  In parks like Custer and Yellowstone - the  Wildlife is charge - you're in their HOUSE!  Show some respect!

The hike cut across the Legion Beach to a connector  bridge before ascending and descending the granite boulder ridge cradling the man-made lake (all lakes in Custer are man made, but they fit the scenery so well you'd never know it.)  Steep inclines caused for a little foot maneuvering, but the views were worth it and we definitely got a work-out! 

We finished the hike around three, and with the sun still out for another few hours we decided to go ahead and drive through the Wildlife Loop.  This is an eighteen-mile loop, which takes motor tourists through a variety of topography from pine speckled granite peaks to the hot and dry open grassland of the Custer prairie.  The Black Hills is a place of Grasslands meets Mountains and therefore the rich diversity of geology and topography is seen in extreme beauty here.

The trail is named for the fact that you have the opportunity to see an abundance of wildlife from Bison, to Pronghorn, Big Horn Sheep and even Wild Burros.  Custer has a variety of Wildlife and you can see most of it on this loop.  However, I will note one missing wildlife member from the Black Hills: Bears.  No bears live in the area, which means Custer is one of the few places in the nation where campers can leave their food out at night without hesitation...

If you are interested in the Wildlife Loop follow me to my next entry!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Archived Entry from August 23rd 2009

We woke up this morning at nine a.m. to a gorgeous day in Custer State Park.  The campground was bustling as fellow campers prepared their breakfast.  Since it's a Sunday, many of the campers are leaving today and were packing up their supplies and taking down their tents.  After going to the nearby Vault toilet to change into a fresh set of clothes we prepared a breakfast of raisins, cereal and diet coke.  Not the most nutritious meal in the world, but it filled the palette.

After breakfast, we relaxed around the campsite for the next hour, discussing our trip and reviewing the Tatanka, Custer State Park's well-written visitor's guide.  Tatanka is Lakota for Bison, the symbol of Custer State Park.    In its 71,000 acres, Custer offers a variety of outdoor and family activities including hikes, boating, swimming and wildlife viewing.  During our stay we hope to experience as much of the park as possible.

At ten-thirty we decided to drive over to Legion Lake, which is approximately a five minute drive around twisty curvy roads, rock walls and thick pine forests.  Legion Lake Lodge dates back to 1913 when Custer State Park was a game preserve in the Custer State Forest.  This location was leased at the time by the local American Legion post, giving the lodge it's time.  The lodge is comprised of stone walls and Ponderosa Pine.  

Legion Lake is a tranquil man-made lake, from the nearby Galena Creek.  In my opinion, Legion offers the best economy lodging for families at Custer.  Families can choose between cabin rentals at affordable rates or a convenient campground.  A playground, beach area and area hikes makes this the perfect spot for kids and adults alike.

After checking my email and grabbing a cup of coffee in the Legion Lake Dining room, my mom and I headed west on Highway 16 into the town of Custer.

Downtown Custer is charming, with streets lined with restaurants, shops and coffeehouses.  Many of the buildings are original to the town and date back to the 1880s.  I suggest checking out the architecture of the 1881 Courthouse, which is open for tours on Custer's history and The Bank: one of the oldest buildings in Custer, it was built as a bank in 1881, eight years before SD became a state. Today it is a Steak and Ribs joint by night and coffeehouse by day.

As we strolled down Main Street Custer, my mom and I started to get hungry. I  guess a breakfast of trail mix and diet coke doesn't hold well :)  We decided to stop for a bite to eat at The Elk Lodge,  one of the many delicious dining options downtown.

The decor was laid back western with Old-West photos and park ambiance.  It is a family friendly establishment with an Americana menu.  For lunch I opted for a burger and their famous homemade BBQ chips and my mom settled on a chicken sandwich.  The food was delicious and the server was friendly.  I would definitely recommend this restaurant to any visitors to Custer.

After lunch we stopped by Pamida, a Wal-Mart like discount chain geared toward smaller towns.  We purchased a cooler, batteries, an extra storage bin and cough drops (yes I'm battling a nagging cold and cough drops are my salvation).   We also loaded up on some more non perishable items at the Dakota Mart, and Custer Market.  The latter offers fresh produce and Gluten Free items ( My mom and I both have Celiac Disease, which mean we can't eat gluten, which is found in wheat products).

Since the weather was so perfect at eighty degrees and little humidity,  we decided to stop by Stockade Lake on the way back to CL for 1.5 mile loop.  Stockade Lake is the largest lake in Custer State Park.  It is a perfect spot for boaters, swimmers, hikers, and picnickers.  After turning into the southeast entrance for Stockade Lake we drove several hundred feet before pulling into the turnout beside the trail head.  We then grabbed our Nalgene water bottles and hit the trail.

The Stockade Lake Trail is a 1.5 loop, which ascends one of the mountain hills surrounding the lake before looping back down.  The path offers a variety of striking views of the lake below, and immersion into the natural forestry of the park.  From the ridge top you can also catch views of Harney Peak in the distance, which is the tallest peak east of the North American Rockies and west of Europe!  

While on the hike we met a friendly retiree from Colorado who was vacationing in the area with her husband.  We spoke for about ten minutes before she headed back down the ridge and we continued our ascension.  The altitude is stifling at first, leaving one gasping for air.  The air is thin here and even for the most athletic takes some getting used to.  Still we pressed on, taking our time as the trail weaved through the Ponderosa Pine Forest.  

It took us an hour and a half to complete this hike.  Despite the short distance, this is a  Moderate to Strenuous hike as you do have to climb some and deal with a lot of rock on the trail, and you do have to deal with a decent altitude change.  I recommend this hike, however if you have trouble breathing you might want to choose one of many other Custer hikes, which I will no doubt be journaling on later.

We returned to our car just before four o'clock, and headed back to our campsite.  We made a quick stop at Legion on the way "home" to pick up a bag of ice for the cooler. Shortly after retuning to our campsite the Park Personnel came by to collect the $16.00 camp fee.  

As dusk settled into night we munched on chips and salsa and wine.  Clouds began to roll in around nine-thirty, and just after bed it began to rain.  We had to rush outside to cover up all of our food and put my guitar into the car.  The wind was ferocious as it howled in and lightning struck through the trees.  After thirty minutes the tempest faded back to clear skies and I fell into sleep, ready for another full day tomorrow.