September 24, 2020

Homeward Bound

 Thursday, September 24, 2020

Our time in the Black Hills was over...a short visit compared to our other trips which are usually two weeks or more. Under normal circumstances we would have spent more time exploring the touristy areas, but this time it was all about the outdoors. It is sad that it took something like Covid to get us to re-discover such a wonderful place close to home, but we for sure will be back again sooner than later!

Most of the food we brought had been consumed so packing up didn't take long and we were on the road fairly early. Our most direct route to get to Interstate 90 was cutting through Custer State Park and it gave us a chance to see some more wildlife. Initially we thought we were going to put a check mark next to one more species on the Custer wildlife list...the mountain goat. Although the horns are similar it turns out these are female bighorn sheep. (The rams have the thick curled horns.) 

This what a mountain goat looks like...all white with a shaggy coat. Definitely not what we saw.
Credit: Wikipedia

As we passed by the State Game Lodge, tents were being set up for the three day arts festival scheduled to begin that morning at 10 am. This festival is held in conjunction with the annual Buffalo Round Up in Custer State Park. 


Traffic was heavy through the park and there were many signs showing the parking areas for the round up the next day. The roundup was scheduled to start at 9:30 am but people would be lining up by 6 am. Seeing the roundup in person would be an impressive event, but being in the crowd with thousands of people does not sound fun to me...even in normal times.

Photo of one section of spectators at this year's roundup.

Two different viewing areas were set up on a hillside so spectators could watch as the bison were herded through the valley and into pens. Some of the buffalo would be auctioned off to keep the herd from growing too large and others would be vaccinated and released back into the hills to graze.

The event was live streamed the next day so we were able to enjoy it all on our big screen TV from the comfort of our family room. Here is a link if you want to watch the 2020 Custer State Park Annual Buffalo Round Up. 

The rest of our day was thankfully uneventful. Once the car hit Interstate 90 then it was smooth sailing across South Dakota. We lost an hour when we crossed back into the Central Time Zone but still were pulling into our driveway by 5 pm. 

No future travel plans for us at this time. Hopefully we will sneak in some day trips and even get to put that South Dakota annual state park pass to use before it expires next May. The warm weather we are experiencing now makes it easy to forget that cold and snow will be here soon and then we will begin our long winter of hibernation. 

Here is to hoping that by next spring normal life is beginning to make a return...

September 23, 2020

Winning the Wildlife Lottery

 Wednesday, September 23, 2020

I had turned off the alarm around midnight knowing Bob would need more sleep after his late night of "elk bugling". And with the alarm, my plans for an early morning visit to Mt. Rushmore were also shut down. If this had been a "must do" activity I would have been disappointed...but it wasn't. Visiting later in the day could still be a possibility, but I knew by then it would be quite crowded. I was determined to avoid being around a lot of people on this trip. I did not want to come home with a souvenir virus.

Even with no alarm, we were both up by 7 am. I think it takes more than 3 days to adjust to a new time zone and our bodies were still under the impression that it was 8 am...long past the time we needed to be out of bed. 

New plans were formulated for the day...a drive through Wind Cave National Park and then the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park. Bob had seen a big herd of buffalo late last night and was curious if we could find them again. We were in the car ready to pull out of the driveway when I remembered the bag of carrots I had brought along to feed the "begging burros"...glad I remembered!

The AirBnB where we were staying was right on the edge of Wind Cave National Park. We entered through a back road and right away ran smack dab into a giant herd of bison. Well we didn't literally run into them, but came close! It was just us and the buffalo and with them totally blocking the road, we had no choice but to stop and spend some time with them. 

We were surrounded on all sides!

There were a couple of opportunities where we could have "maybe" squeezed past the bison, but an hour later we were still sitting there enthralled with the opportunity to be in the middle of these awesome creatures! 

Driving on, Bob immediately spotted a coyote running across a field. He was pretty excited with his find since seeing a coyote is fairly rare. I could barely see the animal but with the zoom on my camera I was able to get a fuzzy photo. The coyote was running through a prairie dog town so it was a "two-fer" wildlife sighting!

While we were stopped watching the coyote, the herd of buffalo slowly started moving in our direction.

Our next safari encounter came soon after with an antelope buck and his harem of does. The group of 7 females was being guarded and corralled by the large male. His actions showed we were making him nervous so we got our photos and drove on.

With the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Round Up only two days away, I had worried that all of the bison might already be penned up and we wouldn't see any. we drove through the Wildlife Loop we encountered two more herds. This road was quite busy with cars as well but at times the only option was to just stop and give the buffalo the right-away. They were not at all intimidated by vehicles and a couple of times we could feel them pushing on the car from behind and even licking it!

A bison car wash.

I had almost forgotten about the burros when we found them hanging out by the entrance to the state park. When one of them wandered over and discovered we were handing out carrots the whole gang followed! I was busy trying to do a video of Bob feeding them out the driver's side window when two more crammed their heads into my window and were nuzzling my neck trying to make sure they got their share. Even breaking the carrots into smaller pieces the whole pound was gone within a couple of minutes! 

And this is why they call them begging burros! 😂

I let out quite the scream when I turned around and had this staring at me!!!

Throughout the morning we munched on the snacks we had in the car but waited till we were back at the apartment to have a proper lunch. I was fighting a bit of a headache so declined the offer to go fly-fishing with Jim, the owner, but Bob jumped at the chance and the two guys took off. 

After a nap I was feeling better and went for a walk down the gravel road. I was just on my way back when the guys returned. Bob had brought back photos and videos to share with me. Jim was able to catch about a dozen fish while Bob watched. I was surprised to see that where they were fishing looked more like a ditch than what I would call a stream.

Tortilla soup was on the dinner easy dump & heat recipe. I had browned and seasoned ground beef in advance so all that was left was to add cans of tomatoes, beans, corn, etc. Topped with crushed nacho chips and grated cheese it made a great meal which we enjoyed sitting on the deck. 

It was still long before the actual sunset time, but when the sun dipped below the hills the temperature dropped noticeably. We decided to go out for one last drive to see if we could spot any more wildlife. Bob also wanted to show me something that he had discovered when he was out with old school house and cemetery. The old log buildings were like visiting a scene from days gone by.

A two-hole outhouse! Not set up for social distancing!

We went down one of the roads that the guys had been on to go fishing just a few hours earlier and SURPRISE...we found ourselves in the middle of a herd of bison again. The buffalo had not been there in the afternoon but now they were grazing and once again blocking the road. If you are counting, this was the 4th time we had gotten in the middle of a herd! 

With no one else around, we just stopped in the middle of the road, turned off the engine and watched and listened to the massive creatures. Grunts, growls, chomping…all around us! Here is just a snippet of what we heard. Turn the sound up and listen...

We watched until the sunset. Not wanting to be on the roads after dark, we reluctantly said goodbye to the bison and started back to the apartment. 

On the way we noticed a couple of cars parked at the pullout where we had seen the coyote and antelope earlier in the day so we stopped. A man in one of the cars pointed out a herd of 17 elk…a large buck with huge antlers and 16 does. They were off in the distance but with the binoculars and my camera zoom, we were able to see them. How exciting! 

Taking a photo at such a long distance with low light did not give good results...but it at least preserved a great memory!

As we were cleaning and packing up back at the cabin, I glanced at a Custer State Park travel guide that we had picked up. A double page spread highlighted all of the wildlife common to the park and I was happy that we had seen all but two species (although technically a couple of the animals we had seen in the Badlands rather than Custer.)

What we did see:

  • birds - several different kinds
  • bighorn sheep (Badlands)
  • prairie dogs
  • white-tailed deer…an abundance of these were always in the valley near the apartment
  • mule deer…(Badlands)
  • elk
  • burros
  • pronghorn antelopes

 What we hadn’t seen (at least yet!)

  • Mountain lions
  • Mountain goats

All in all a great day of wildlife viewing!

September 22, 2020

Roughlock Falls & Spearfish Canyon

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

No alarm was set, but we were still up shortly after dawn. Today's plan was to drive to the northern part of the Black Hills...over an hour away from where we were staying. We had barely pulled out of the driveway and we saw a deer.

Highway 385 took us past the Crazy Horse Memorial again but going in this direction gave us a much better view of the carving. Some day this is going to be amazing...but that day is far off into the future.

Model of what finished sculpture will look like. (

As we drove north, the Gypsy Guide App would frequently give us little tidbits of information. The history of the area we learned was interesting, but the real value of the app was giving us directions to places that would have gotten missed or been hard to find otherwise. Gypsy Joe (as we referred to the male voice on the app) took us right to the parking lot for the trail head of Roughlock Falls...our first stop of the day. Well...almost the first stop. Bob pulled over a time or two to when he saw interesting rocks alongside the road. Cheap souvenirs.

It would have been nice to arrive here early in the morning as we did for the hike at Sylvan Lake, but with the hour+ drive it just didn't happen. We were sharing the path with a few more people than I would have preferred, but still no more than we encounter on walks around our own neighborhood at home.

It was cool enough that jeans felt good when we began the hike but as the sun rose up above the hills, it got much warmer. The yellow fall foliage sprinkled with bits of orange and red made for a beautiful walk down the path. The trail followed along the Little Spearfish Creek with tall bluffs on either side. 

The one-mile trail led us to the lower falls. We waited until others had left before we went to the end of the boardwalk overlooking the falls. I could have stayed here much longer, but we wanted to give others the chance to get their photos as well.

The cascading lower falls with a glimpse of the upper falls in the background.

The trail continued uphill to the upper falls which can also be accessed by a much shorter path coming from a different parking lot. It was obvious that most people take the quicker route and it was fairly congested. We donned our masks here and only stayed long enough to get some photos. 

Upper Roughlock Falls. 
(Thanks, Erin, for the tip on how to take long exposure photos with an iPhone!!)

It had taken us about an hour to get to the falls with all of our photo stops, but walking back to our car went much quicker. Gypsy Joe had mentioned that a couple of miles down the gravel road was a filming location for the movie "Dances With Wolves." (Bob has watched this movie more times than I can count and frequently listens to the soundtrack while driving. Between this and his love for the Badlands, you can get an idea of his passions and interests.)

We almost drove past the spot when I caught a glimpse of a sign. And really that is all that is there…a sign. I took my shoes off and put my feet in the small creek while Bob managed to get across the water to explore. (My feet didn’t stay in the water long before they were hurting from the cold. A little longer and they would have been numb!) Not for sure, but he thinks this was the location for the winter scene near the end of the movie.

Dances With Wolves film site.

Trying to get across the creek to explore the film site.

Leaving the movie site, we backtracked down the gravel road towards Spearfish Canyon Road. We had hoped to walk the trail to Spearfish Falls as well, but somehow missed where we should’ve turned. The trail head was very near the Roughlock Falls trail, but I thought there was a separate parking lot. Who knows. Now we have something to look forward to on a future trip.

The drive thru Spearfish Canyon was spectacular. It was lunchtime and Bob suggested just finding a pull-off and eating from the car. We couldn't find any place that was shady and it was too warm to sit in the sun (in my opinion.) Eventually we came to a small forest service picnic area with a few tables. Only one table was available (which was in the sun AND next to the pit toilet) so we pulled out our lawn chairs and sat in the shade by the car. Spearfish Creek was running through the picnic area and we enjoyed the sound of the rushing water while we ate our lunch.

Spearfish Canyon Road

View from our picnic spot.

Bridal Veil Falls

We just happened to see this waterfall and pulled over. No sign or mention of it from our Gypsy Guide. It was actually more impressive than the more well-known Bridal Veil Falls.

Reaching the end of the canyon drive, we turned back south again and drove through downtown Deadwood. Following the signs, we drove up the steep hill to the Mt. Moriah cemetery where Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane were buried. Having visited here before we didn't go into the cemetery, but just drove by. Again...something to add to our future itineraries. 

Continuing on, we came to the town of Lead (pronounced leed). The Gypsy Guide app alerted us to the Sanford Underground Research Lab which occupies the former Homestake Gold Mine in Lead. The lab makes use of the hundreds of miles of underground space to do physics research in dark matter and neutrino science. I don't even begin to understand what that will just have to check it out yourself! 

The parking area at the visitor center overlooked the giant mine pit. Only a couple other cars were in the lot so we put on our masks and went inside. I think there were just 3 others inside so we quickly walked around looking at the exhibits.

Open cut portion of the mine.

T. Denny Sanford made a $70 million donation to help fund this research lab. Before retirement, Bob worked as a paramedic for Sanford Health, a recipient of another $400 million of Denny's money.

View of the open mine through the window of the visitor center.

Initially we had considered driving on to Devil's Tower, across the state line in Wyoming. Bob has climbed Devil's Tower a few times and it is such an impressive site, but given the long drive we had ahead of us we decided to head back to the apartment. On the way we stopped at Pactola Lake. I wanted to get a photo of the interesting island and Bob wanted look for a few more rocks. (As if we the car load we already have wasn't enough.) 

On the hunt for more rocks.

After eating a hodge-podge of leftovers for dinner, Jim (the AirBnB owner) offered to take us out "elk bugling." (Jim explained that he had a horn that imitated an elk sound which you blow and then wait to see if an elk responds.) I decided that sounded like a guy-type of trip so I stayed at the apartment and let Bob and Jim have all the fun. 😄 

I was so tired I could barely stay awake until they left at 9:30 PM. Around midnight I woke up and realized that Bob still wasn't back! I think it was close to 1:00 am when he came in. Our plan was to get up at 5:45 AM the next morning to head to Mount Rushmore but I shut off the alarm and decided we would rethink those plans in the morning.

(Note: Bob had a great time on his "elk bugling" excursion! They were successful in hearing and seeing elk and also ran into a buffalo herd. While they were out they also encountered a group of conservation officers doing nighttime research on ferrets!)