Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Sue and Mo at Harris Beach
Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Thursday, August 16, 2012

3200 miles and It’s a Wrap

smoke from the 250K acre fires burning south in Oregon and Nevada I am sitting in the office at home in Rocky Point watching the midges, mosquitoes, and moths slapping against the dark windows.  We have been home for several days now and I am still not all caught up.  It is hot here, in the mid 90’s today, and smoky.  The Barry Point Fire near Lakeview and the Holloway Fire farther east in Oregon and Nevada have been raging since the 6th of August.

The heat is incredibly hard on the firefighters, with exhaustion setting in for the crews.  I have been following along on Inciweb in addition to a nice blog and Facebook posts that someone from the Barry Fire is doing.

Barry and Holloway fires The heat is good for the tomatoes, though, and the vines are getting heavy with nice little green things that hopefully will turn red in the next two weeks or so, at least maybe before the Labor Day frost.  The heat also is bringing out the frogs and every time I lift the top of the hot tub a little frog or two jumps out.  So far no floaters at least.

Mo came into the office today smiling at me saying, “What’s the temperature at the beach right now?” Brother Dan and his wife Chere are over there and with temperatures here in the high 90’s and smoky skies ever since we got home, those cool, foggy days on the coast sound pretty nice.

Seems as though the beach is calling Mo and she brought the motorhome back up the driveway this evening.  I have been working this week in addition to catching up on gardening chores and got the MoHo all spic and span on the inside and Mo shined her up on the outside.  Finally finished that job yesterday…and now it’s time to load up again?  But wait…I still haven’t written about half of the last trip we were on!  Still, I have been missing the ocean too.  Guess we will be pulling out of the driveway tomorrow morning early, sans Tracker.  This time we are just going to hang at the beach, and Mo put the bikes directly on the back of the MoHo so we can enjoy those great bike trails around the South Beach State Park near Newport, Oregon.

route map Colorado 2012Our Colorado Reunion Trip was a total of 3,212 miles, through Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, SOUTH DAKOTA, back into Wyoming, Idaho, and back home to Oregon.  Yes, we finally got to put that dang South Dakota sticker on the decal on the back of the MoHo. I think people like to see the numbers, so here they are: 21 Days:  fuel including about 500 extra miles of Tracker travel $1747.32, camping $280.12. We spent over 300 in groceries and 145 eating out which is unusual for us.  Must have been all that family time and fun cookouts.

time to fill in the South Dakota sticker! I managed to process most of the photos while we were traveling, and spent a couple of days after work here at home cleaning them up and getting them uploaded to Picasa.  That Picasa/Google thing makes me just crazy.  I hate that when I share photos directly from Picasa now, even using the actual copy/paste of the URL, when folks go look at them, they still get the Google thing.  Yeah, sure, Google is nice enough, but the photos are so dang BIG and you can’t see nice little thumbnails the way I can on Picasa Web Albums directly.  Ah well, progress I guess.  Like that crazy looking Windows 8 thing that Rick keeps talking about.

our beautiful Wood River Valley with the Casade Crest to the west...all hidden by smokeI last wrote when we were all relaxed in the beautiful Shoshone National Forest at Falls Campground in Wyoming.  I haven’t been that relaxed since, and our trip home was a blur of smoky highways and interstates, punctuated by the magnificent Shoshone Falls in Twin Falls, Idaho, and finished off with the long trek home through the deserts of Eastern Oregon.  Even with the bronzy skies and red setting sun it was great to be home.  The house was clean and cool and roomy, and my bed even more so. 

Jeremy in position as we head west over the Bighorns Jeremy wandered around meowing at all the space, wondering where we went if we left the room.  He loves the motorhome because we are close by and it takes him awhile to adjust to all the rooms in the house where he can’t keep track of his people. Aren’t cats supposed to be independent?  Not this one!  Ever since he was a bottle fed baby of three weeks old he has wanted to be as close to me as he can, most of the time. Now, of course, Mo’s lap is as good or better than mine.  He adores her, even though she has only been around the last ten years or so.  Ha!

Roger and Nancy behind usDriving Highway 95 northeast of the Steens Yes, yes, I will write about the rest of our journey, but it will be predated for the actual dates that we were doing whatever we were doing, and as a result probably won’t show up in the blog rolls.  You will have to be a truly dedicated reader to find the posts when they go up.  Ha! I have the list…Bear Lake Regional Park, Carhenge (you won’t believe this one!), Wounded Knee, The Battlefield at Little Bighorn, the magical, mythical Bighorn Mountains and the Hot Springs at Thermopolis, the Niagara of the West at Twin Falls, and the sweetest little desert hot spring around in the middle of nowhere in Oregon.  Stay tuned…and to the people who read this blog and follow along and make comments…thank you.  For being patient with me and for still reading.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Last of Wyoming

August 6 and 7 Falls Campground on Highway 26 west of Dubois, breezy, in the low 70’s

view from loop B in Falls CampgroundIt’s breezy at the moment, and the vertical mountain cliffs north of the campground are a bit clearer than they were when we woke this morning.  Smoke from the fires in Montana and Idaho are finding their way toward us again and dimming the brilliance of the sunshine. I am sitting in the shade by the unlit campfire while Mo splits kindling for tonight.  Tee shirt and shorts are the order of the day.  The sun is warm but the breeze is just chilly enough that the shade feels wonderful. 

Day 16 (54)When planning this trip, I hoped to find something along the way between Thermopolis and the tourist busy part of the highway around Jackson Hole.  Streets and Trips led to this Shoshone FS campground and we took our chances without a reservation.  Then I read RV Sue’s account of her time both here, and at the Brooks Lake campgrounds five miles north, and I knew the choice would be a good one.

It has been a peaceful stop, even with the daytime sound of traffic moving west toward Yellowstone and the Tetons.  The rally at Sturgis is now in progress, so the roar of motorcycles has dimmed to just an occasional rumble.  After our hot evening in Thermopolis, (yes, I still have to write about Thermopolis, the Bighorn Mountains, the Medicine Wheel, Buffalo, and the Little Bighorn Battleground!) even the A loop seems uncrowded to us.  The plans were adjusted a bit yesterday so that we could stay here two nights and have a full day to enjoy the last of the Wyoming mountains.

Map Thermopolis to Falls CampgroundYesterday was a short trip, only 155 miles or so between Thermopolis and this park, with a Wal-Mart stop at Riverton in between.  Some parts of Wyoming are simply breathtaking, but other parts seem like long stretches of a landscape only a geologist could love.  When we reached Dubois, the mountains again lifted to the west.  This part of the west gives full meaning to what John McPhee described so well in “Basin and Range”.

west of Dubois, WyomingI thought of RV Sue in the laundromat, telling her great stories at the only place where you can get any kind of internet.  We haven’t had a decent signal in several days now.  We don’t even have a cell phone signal here and in the park in Thermopolis, the phones wouldn’t work at all and the MiFi struggled along with a single bar. 

settling into the electric loop A at Falls CampgroundWe decided that even though loop B was completely empty yesterday, we wanted electricity, and so entered loop A hoping for two sites together.  Two sites appeared, and just in time, since the two rigs following us were hoping as well.  I think this loop filled up last night, but when we went walking in loop B it was still empty.

brother and sisterNancy and Roger and Mo and I are still enjoying or tandem travels. This is new for us, since we usually travel alone, but it has been working out just perfectly.  Mo and I are somewhat the tour guides, with the responsibility of planning the routes, looking for gas, choosing the overnights, deciding how far we can go in a day.  Whenever I ask Nancy or Roger if they have a preference, their answer is invariably, “Whatever you two want is fine with us”.  Talk about easy!!

campfire at Falls CampgroundWe have been sharing our evening meals, with most of them a joint effort, and now and then we do the big camp breakfast complete with hash browns and toast.  Tonight is steak night, and I’ll bring the salad, Nancy does the Texas toast and we each cook our steaks.  Roger even has a pair of titanium sticks for cooking marshmallows.  They don’t get hot at all over the fire and I have some of those huge camp marshmallows left over from who knows when.  I don’t even like marshmallows, but still love to do the campfire thing.  

dogs playing in the Big Horn River at Falls CampgroundWe walked around the campground last night, took pictures of the waterfall, and spent a lot of time laughing at the dogs while they played in the Wind River that winds through the campground.  Jeremy really enjoyed this spot as well, since it was open and spacious enough that I could let him run around outside on his own.  He is really so good about it, but every once in awhile he decides that he is NOT ready to go in and will go under the rig and laugh at me.

Brooks Lake on a smoky dayToday we decided  to take a leisurely drive (five miles of very washboard road) up to Brooks Lake for some kayaking and hopefully to hear more stories about the mama grizzly and her two cubs that have been hanging out there.  Mama is gone it seems, at least the camp host Richard hasn’t seen them in a couple of weeks.  We also discovered to our dismay that in order to launch our kayaks in Wyoming, we are required to have a Wyoming boat sticker and an additional invasive species sticker for each boat.  A bit too expensive for one afternoon of kayaking. 

Brooks Lake on a smoky dayInstead we parked at the boat launch area and wandered off toward Jade Lakes and enjoyed the part of the trail that borders Brooks Lake. We thought better of hiking the four miles round trip to the top since we were in our kayak sandals with the dogs and  had no bear spray and no water. It was a pretty walk, and at the time we didn’t know that mama bear wasn’t around, so we were a little nervous now and then as we approached buffalo berry thickets. 

campfire at Falls Campground the perfect marshmallowIt feels great to slow down a bit, and this will be our last day in cool, timbered mountains.  Mo built great campfires, surprising that they are allowed in this kind of fire season, but the fire circles at this campground are especially nice, with strong iron grates, and a space beneath the fire box to store kindling.

Jake and Jeremy really like each otherIt  has been wonderful to have enough space to let Jeremy outside to explore the campsite and play with Jackson, his new found best buddy.  Jackson loves the kitty and will lick Jeremy’s ears and follow him everywhere he goes.  Abby isn’t as affectionate with Jeremy, and since Jeremy grew up with dogs, he misses that interaction.  He often snuggles up to Abby and she looks at us saying, “really?!” 

Tomorrow we will again have internet access, television, and probably traffic.  Twin Falls is next on the list.

Jeremy loves it when he can explore camp

Thursday, August 2, 2012

~Deadwood, Devils Tower, and Buffalo ~

We are now in Buffalo, Wyoming, at the Deer Park Campground. Skies are smoky and night temperatures have cooled to something more reasonable that the 95 degrees we found when we arrived at 7 pm.
day 12_095DSC_0095Somehow this day seemed to be a study in contrasts.  The streets of Deadwood thundered with the sound of motorcycles and the crush of people, and the same sounds accompanied our views of Devils Tower.  Yet, as we approached this mythical mountain, I felt much as N. Scott Mornaday did when he said, “There are things in nature which engender an awful quiet in man, Devils Tower is one of them”.
finding Devils Tower on a cloudy dayWe approached from the south leaving Interstate 90 at Sundance so that we could make the loop back to Moorcroft without having to backtrack on our way to Buffalo.  The land rises slowly, with low rolling ridges lifting upward and shadowed by the dark pine forest of this far northern tip of the Black Hills.  The road is a good one, and the views open up to the west for a hundred miles of Wyoming space, but Devils Tower doesn’t make it’s first appearance until we are several miles north of the interstate.  When it does, it seems small but still not insignificant, even shrouded in the darkness of an afternoon thunderstorm moving east.
a little bit of light on Devils TowerControversy surrounds this vertical dome of rock, even to the geologic origin of the porphyritic igneous gray stone filled with large white crystals of feldspar.  The simplest explanation is that it is an intrusion of magma that wasn’t ever really a volcano, and probably never erupted on the surface of the earth.  It cooled and was later exposed by erosion.   That is the simple version, and there are many others written up in the various geologic references to the dramatic vertical tower.
In addition to the creation controversy, there are conflicts over the name, which has a negative connotation that doesn’t sit well with the local tribes who revere the monolith as a sacred place.  Bear Lodge is one of their many names for it.  There is also controversy over the several thousand people who come each year to climb the huge columns.  Just yesterday a young couple ascended the east face with their ten month old on board.  That puts a whole new spin on the “baby on board” thing, doesn’t it!  What about child endangerment??
the Legtend of Bear Butte (Debils Tower)If you ever saw “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, a classic and a favorite of mine, you saw this place.  It is the kind of place that triggers imagination, whether that of Steven Spielberg or the many Native American tribes who have an equally mythically compelling story of 7 sisters who were chased to the top of a tall tree by their brother who had transformed into a bear.  Eventually the sisters were raised safely to the sky, and became the Pleiades, or the Big Dipper, depending on who is telling the story.
rigs in the coming stormThe road to Devils Tower past the entry gate (where we used our Senior Passes for free entry) wasn’t too narrow, but when we saw a sign “Large Vehicle Drop-Off) we whipped around and took advantage of it and unhooked the toads for the trip to the visitor center just 2 miles farther up the road.  It was a good thing we did, because there wasn’t any parking at all up there and barely any turnaround space. I enjoyed the visitor center, and the proximity to the tower. I could have stayed there much longer, but the day was escaping and there was still some 130 miles to go before we settled in for the night in Buffalo, our destination for the day.  I somehow didn’t plan this leg of the journey quite right because my short little hour for the town of Deadwood, turned into three hours of delight and fun.
great buildings on the streets of DeadwoodLeaving Hermosa this morning right on time at 8am, we caravanned north on Highway 40 to Keystone.  The town was still sleeping and yet the rock shop was open and we spent some time wandering among the big bins of rose quartz and petrified wood so that I could take back a big hunk of that gorgeous rosy rock that comes from the heart of the Black Hills.  I saw several outcroppings of the stuff as we wound our way around the hills, and remembered the huge bins I have seen in Quartzite of Black Hills rose quartz.  Of course that would be my souvenir! So much better to get it here right in the hills than down in the desert.
Deadwood from Mt Moriah CemeteryThe drive north toward Deadwood opened up a completely different part of the Hills, with deeper forests and less rangeland, more water, a big reservoir, and green valleys in between.  Yesterday we spent time in Custer State Park, buffalo country, gorgeous rangeland, and the difference was significant.  The Black Hills stretched north, and felt much bigger today than they did until now.  I’ll be writing about Custer City and Custer State Park eventually, but tonight this day is foremost in my mind and vision.
Thunderstorms threatened us all day, with huge dark clouds just out of reach, and just an occasional burst of raindrops on the windshield.  By the time we got to Deadwood, the skies were clearing and the air was fresh and cool.  I had no idea what to expect of Deadwood, but Mo thought we definitely needed to at least drop in and spend an hour or so. 
We were here on August 2ndDeadwood reminded me so very much of Wallace, a north Idaho mining town where I once lived.  The big difference was the influx of money from casinos and gambling into Deadwood. Like Wallace, the entire town is a National Historic Site, but the money from gambling seems to give a big boost to the Deadwood economy.  The town was lively and fun! After walking up and down the streets I did begin to notice that there weren’t any real “shops” anywhere in Deadwood, just a LOT of bars, and saloons, and restaurants, and casinos, and just a few shops with kitschy stuff and a boutique with diamond studded leather everything.  In the midst of this, however, it was obvious that underneath all that was a real small town, with a courthouse, and an athletic center, parks, and some old wonderful neighborhoods.  Just like Wallace. 
Mt Moriah Cemetery from the trolleyWe wanted to see Boot Hill, or what is now called the Mt Moriah Cemetery, where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried, side by side.  Instead of climbing the long steep hill to the top, we decided to enjoy the Boot Hill Tour trolley. Lucky for us, they were dog friendly, and Abby and Jackson were perfect dogs on the trolley and in the cemetery where they sat on the stone steps and slept while we all listened to stories of Bill and Jane, who actually only met once and were barely acquainted!  A shocking revelation to me.
Abby and Mo on the dog friend Boot Hill TourBack down the hill we settled in for lunch on the patio of one more very dog friendly spot before loading up and heading out of town.  I was so glad that we stopped at the first big parking area on the southwest side of town as we entered, because we discovered there would have been no place to even think of parking a motorhome any closer.
smoke filled skies as we approach the Big Horn MountainsWe drove from Deadwood to Buffalo with the Devils Tower loop in about eleven hours, and it was only 275 miles.  I was excited to once again see the Big Horn Mountains, my reason for traveling this way, but on this August afternoon I was to be disappointed.  Fires in the west are wreaking havoc, and at the moment there are several burning in Montana just north of us and in Wyoming and Idaho.  The smoke got thicker as we approached Buffalo and we could just barely see a thin faint outline of what was supposed to be Cloud Peak, the crown of the Cloud Peak Wilderness and the Big Horn Mountains. 
Big Sigh…
We have scheduled three nights here in Buffalo, with day trips into the Big Horns big on the list. Smoke in the summer in the west… I knew it could be a problem on this trip, but so far we have been really lucky.  We will see what the next three days have in store for us.  Looking at the murky skies over Buffalo, I wished we had planned instead for a night or two just feeling whatever it is that you feel at the base of Devils Tower.  Map Hermosa to Buffalo

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

“Custer for Buffalo and Buffalo for Custer”

August 1

day 13_045DSC_0045 This was the refrain I kept repeating as we traveled toward the Wyoming town of Buffalo after leaving Custer State Park in South Dakota (where we saw all the buffalo/bison). The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (site of the infamous Custer’s Last Stand) is just a short 110 miles north of our base camp in Buffalo and we knew it was something we wanted to see. 

Map Buffalo to Little Bighorn 110 miles When we woke in the morning, the skies were even smokier than the night before, and the beautiful views of the Bighorns still eluded me. 

On this day we traveled I-90 north through a dreary murky world, trying to get an idea of what the surrounding landscape  might have looked like on a clear day. There isn’t a lot to see along this stretch of I-90 without the views of the beautiful mountains and broad vistas.  Instead I kept checking the iPhone for InciWeb reports of the fires, reading that smoky skies north of Buffalo from the Rosebud Complex firesthe worst fire was actually just a few miles north of us, right near our destination.  I could see road closures, and hoped that at least the interstate was still open.

New name in 1991 Arriving at our turn up the hill toward the monument, we were worried when we saw the “road closed ahead” barriers, but thankfully it was just the road past the monument, and  not ours.

The more amazing thing about the day, however, was that as we neared the source of the fires, the smoke thinned and thinned and eventually was completely gone except for the big, dark plume at the fire just northeast of us near Rosebud. To the east, south, and west, the Montana skies opened up in all their Big Sky glory, filled with wild clouds flying to the southeast and brilliant sunshine. Sometimes I think it is more than just luck that follows us around on these roads.

day 13_032DSC_0032that red portion was the "unceded land" left for the Sioux to hunt buffalo since they were already decimated in their reservation east of the Black Hills Often, when traveling in this part of the world, as when working in the wilderness in the past, I find myself slipping back into thoughts of what it must have been like to be an Indian living here before the white man arrived.  I look toward the skyline and imagine being on a horse overlooking a ravine or follow an old track with images of a heavily laden travois trailing behind me. Somehow this morning, as we drove north through small valleys along rivers lined with cottonwoods, I found myself wondering what it must have been like to be a young boy of 18, from somewhere in Illinois, riding along these meandering streams in hostile country, scared and trying to hide it, wondering what in the world his commander must be thinking.

I grew up with Cowboys and Indians, with the Indians most often being the “bad guys”.  I lived through the awakening of our culture to the true atrocities of what was done to our native people, day 13_024DSC_0024highlighted again on this trip as we visited Wounded Knee. I read the book as so many others did, and turned with so many to the belief that we were the “bad guys”.  But somehow on this smoky morning, I felt sadness for those young boys who followed their leaders into the wild west and tried to be good soldiers and do what was expected of them.  Maybe it is because I have had two of my own young boy grandsons led into war, two boys who tried to be good soldiers and do what was expected of them and suffer the sad consequences.  Of course, that is another story.

markers for Indians who fell at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Imagine my surprise to find out that at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument, the story of the clash of both these cultures would be presented with such insight and authenticity.  No one was the “bad guy”. Well, almost no one.  I can’t help looking at photos of Colonel George Armstrong Custer and thinking, “That man was crazy.  He looks crazy!” 

Little Bighorn is a special place.  The history has been well documented, the story studied and written from so many angles, you can find it anywhere.  However, the actuality of walking this sacred ground is something that can’t be written about very well.  It is a gut reaction, and no matter what your personal slant on this part of history, you will be moved if you have a soul.

day 13_010DSC_0010 The four of us wandered through the incredibly well done Visitor Center, and landed in a small theater to watch an Oscar-worthy documentary about the battle, the players, the strategy, and the politics.  Yeah, it even made me cry. The movie used animated arrows to describe the movement of both sides toward the fated conflict, and the soft voices of Arapaho, Lakota, Cheyenne, and Crow told the story of what this battle meant to them.  Then a small quiet voice of a young solder talked about how it felt to be in this place on the fated day.  It sounded just like that 18 year old boy I imagined wandering on his horse along the cottonwood lined streams.

We then took our time to walk through the museum and I was mesmerized by the famous photo of Sitting Bull, a life sized reproduction.  Can you see brilliance and intelligence and compassion and resolution in a simple old black and white photo?  I did!  Can you see crazy insanity in a photo of a man?  Looking at Custer’s photo, I wondered what made him tick, as many other historians have wondered and researched as well.

the original marker with the names of the white soldiers who died The book and gift shop was a treasure of history, with sections devoted to each part of the conflict and its as yet unresolved problems.  What still stays with me is the way that the entire story was presented so beautifully, so fully, and with so much cooperation between once warring tribes and the invading white men.  I bought a shiny new copy of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and a small slim volume documenting the Cherokee “Trail of Tears”.  It is irrelevant, or almost irrelevant that my great-great grandmother was Cherokee, but I still wanted that book.  A tiny part of the few family roots that I can actually track go back to the hardwood forests of the Carolinas when the Cherokee were still there.

at the Little Bighorn Battlefield After being thoroughly moved by the stories, the exhibits, the movie, the photos, we wandered off to drive the five mile narrow road that follows the famous ridge above the Little Bighorn River.  We saw the markers that were placed after the battle, another story worth seeking out.  We saw Custer’s marker, and pictured him behind the six horses that he killed in a futile attempt to make some kind of barrier between him and Death. We saw the new markers for where the Indians fell as well, testament to the fact that this place is sacred to the tribes as well as the white man. 

What struck me most of all was the understanding that the Indians won this battle, but it was the marker of the end for them.  Here they lost the war.  There was such a huge outpouring of outrage at the time that congress enacted all sorts of programs to once and for all eradicate the “bad guys” from the rich west they wanted to exploit.  Manifest Destiny and all that.  It was a day for contemplation as well.  I stood on those golden hills with that gorgeous Montana sky above me and wondered just what our country would have looked like if Manifest Destiny had failed. What it would look like today if we stayed where we belonged, but then how far east would that line go? The thirteen colonies?  Ohio? Or maybe the Mississippi River?  What kind of country would we have been in the world if we had treated our native people with true respect?  the Bighorn Mountains are waiting for us

Time travel isn’t possible, you can’t go back and change anything, and even if you could, what kind of other messes would arise if you did?

It has taken me a month to write about this place.  At the moment, it is 5 in the morning on September 10th in Rocky Point.  Little Bighorn affected me profoundly in ways that have been meandering around in my soul for awhile now, and I wasn’t sure I could even come close to conveying what it was like to be there in any kind of way that mattered.  You can view it as simply history, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery, visit the lovely center, or you can stand there and feel the place.  However it strikes you, it is a place not to be missed.

Bison, Burros, and a Beautiful Place

We drove the wildlife loop in Custer State Park on August 1

wildlife loop Custer State ParkThe history of the Black Hills, as with many other places in the west, is marked by the discovery of gold.  As a sacred place to the Sioux, prior to the white man, its unwritten history extends far into the past.  The pivotal shift, however, was in the summer of 1874 when Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer discovered gold near the present day town of Custer City.  Even though the land belonged to the Plains Indians, under the Treaty of 1868, thousands of gold seekers poured into the area and illegally occupied the newly discovered mountains of gold.  But that is another story. Sad, controversial, and horrendous. 

buffalo on the wildlife loop Custer State ParkBy 1897, when Custer State Park was first established as South Dakota’s first state park, Congress granted sections sixteen and thirty-six of each South Dakota township to be used for schools and other public purposes. The parcels, scattered throughout the Black Hills timberlands, were difficult to manage and in 1906, the state began negotiations to exchange the scattered parcels for a solid block of land. In 1910, South Dakota relinquished all rights to 60,000 acres of land within the Black Hills Forest Reserve in exchange for 50,000 acres in Custer County and 12,000 acres in Harding County. In 1912, these two parcels of land were designated as Custer State Forest, and later became Custer State Park.

wildlife loop Custer State ParkNow, with more than 71,000 acres of protected land, the park is the second largest state park in the country. Now the park is home to a healthy herd of more than 1,300 buffalo, but in 1900 it was estimated that less than 1,000 bison remained on the entire continent.  Peter Norbeck, "The Father of Custer State Park”, saw the seriousness of the issue and took action by purchasing 36 bison to start the herd at the park.  By the 1940’s, the herd had swelled to more than 2,500 and the parks rangelands were beginning to show the effects of overgrazing.

Now there is an annual roundup, held in late September, where the bison are herded into the Buffalo Corrals and the size and structure of the herd are adjusted according to the predicted availability of grassland forage. Although much of the park is forested, and the day before we had traveled through the winding roads of the Needles area, the southern portion of the park, with its wide open gorgeous rangeland truly caught my heart.  Ungrazed by cattle, the native grasses are still dominant, punctuated by islands of forested hills and drainages lined with cottonwoods and elms. 

Nancy and Roger at Custer State ParkWe started our day before 8am, hoping that we would see more wildlife by leaving a bit earlier.  The wildlife loop that leads south from 16A is only 18 miles long, but I could have happily spent the entire day just wandering the narrow roads looking at the buffalo, laughing at the burros, taking photos of wildflowers and enjoying open rangeland that seemed to look much as it might have looked before that fateful day in 1874.

Sue and Mo, with stampeding buffalo behind us!We encountered our first group of animals even before we left the main highway, and the fuzzy photo of Mo and I is due to the complexity of trying to get a shot while a motorcyclist sped through the intersection, spooking the buffalo into a charge across the pavement.  They can move amazingly fast!  Crazy tourists!

Once south on the wildlife loop, however, the landscape opened up, and we encountered several different groups along the roadway.  They are amazing animals.  Relatively docile by nature, they can also be unpredictable and there are numerous warnings in the park to this effect.  Most of the calves are born in May, with most cows having a single calf.  Buffalo can live to 40 years, with an average lifespan of 25.  They need little care, with instincts for survival that cattle seem to lack.  They can survive brutal winter storms and at times care for their young in sub-zero blizzards.

Day 11 Custer SP and Custer CityA few miles south on the wildlife loop is a beautiful small visitor center, another lovely building crafted by the men of the CCC.  A large group of buffalo were grazing around the center and the volunteer inside laughed with me and said, “Please don’t ask where the buffalo are!”.  I guess that is the most often asked question and much of the time the buffalo.

The buffalo aren’t the only treasure along the route, however, with pronghorns, mule deer, whitetail deer, mountain goats, elk, coyotes, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, many birds, and burros calling the park home.  The burros aren’t native in the Black Hills but were used to haul visitors to the top of Harney Peak in the early days of the park.  The rides were discontinued and the burrow were released into the park where they have become an undeniable well loved visitors attraction.

Day 11 Custer SP and Custer City1We were tickled to find the burros along the southern portion of the loop, and of course have the requisite photos of sweet and silly burro faces reaching into our car windows looking for treats.  We didn’t give them any, so they eventually ambled on.  I especially enjoyed a young colt who laid his ears back and pointed his back end toward the car.  Mo was a bit worried that we might end up with a scar on the Tracker!  I noticed that the young ones were a lot more wary of the cars and people than the older tourist- adults.

Day 11 Custer SP and Custer City2In addition to the animals, we found several areas of summer wildflowers, including the bush morning glory which has an amazing taproot that can be as much as eighteen inches! in diameter and four feet long. We also saw a beautiful bluestem pricklypoppy, an plant that animals carefully avoid because of its harsh spines and unpalatable juices.  Leadplant, found throughout the prairie, is nutritious for livestock and prairie Indians made a delicious tea from the leaves.

time for a swim break at Stockade Lake on Highway 16AFinally returning to Highway 16 via HWY 87, we continued west to the town of Custer.  Reading the brochures, we thought the Woodworking Museum might be an interesting “attraction” to try out. With Roger and Nancy in their own car with Jackson and us in the Tracker with Abby, it worked out well for visiting areas that didn’t allow dogs, since we could take turns watching our pets.  The Woodworking Museum was nice, interesting, and something you don’t see every day, but I’m not sure it was something I would chose to do again. 

we are all happy to eat outside togetherWe drove back into the town of Custer and found a great little spot for lunch where the food was really great, the service was wonderful, and the dogs were welcome.  The Cattleman’s restaurant is touted in the tour books but when I saw the patio I swerved into the Frontier Grill, a place that looked a bit more like a biker bar than a restaurant.  Jackson isn't so sure about this oneWhat a great choice!  We then walked around town with the dogs, enjoyed more dog friendly art galleries and shops, took photos of the wonderful art buffalos around town, and topped off the afternoon with ice cream from the Purple Pie Palace, in spite of the long lines.

I wanted to see the Crazy Horse Memorial, and it was a top choice on my list, but by the time we drove north to the memorial, the two hour time commitment and $10 dollar per person fee, and the worry about the dogs again was just too much and the group consensus was to view the memorial from a distance.  I took some distant photos, felt sad that it worked out this way, but realized that sometimes I just have to adjust.

Crazy Horse memorial from the highwaySince I didn’t get there, here is the website for something that other bloggers have called the best thing to see in the Black Hills, and here is the mission statement of the foundation:

The mission of Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation is to protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of the North American Indians. The Foundation demonstrates its commitment to this endeavor by continuing the progress on the world’s largest sculptural undertaking by carving a memorial of Lakota leader Crazy Horse; by providing educational and cultural programming; by acting as a repository for American Indian artifacts, arts and crafts through the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational & Cultural Center; and by establishing and operating the Indian University of North America and, when practical, a medical training center for American Indians.

Map Custer SP Wildlife Loop