The Black Hills And The Badlands

July 16, 2023

We left the beautiful state of Wyoming and headed to South Dakota which was a surprise to all of us in how much we liked it. We stayed in Custer State Park at Sylvan Lake which is surrounded by the black hills. The Black Hills for a little history lesson were previously territories of the Lakota Indians until gold was found and then the US reclaimed the land. The mark of the Lakota Indians is found everywhere, especially in the carvings at Crazy Horse, which I will mention later because it was one of my favorite places to see in South Dakota.

Greg loved the Black Hills! He might not tell you that but he sure seemed to pretend he was driving his Audi along those roads instead of a 25 foot RV. Dramamine was in full effect for Maggie and I so we were enjoying it also thankfully. The Black Hills are an interesting place. It looks like a forest with rounded rocks that are mixed in with green, grass covered hills. These hills used to have trees on them but this region of South Dakota has a ton of lightning storms and hence a great number of forest fires. When we got out of the black hills and had cell service I looked up when the last fire was and the list of large fires that occur every year is astounding. The trees have either fallen or are just standing upright with no branches on them. There is no plan to reforest the hills because it is done naturally in cycles and actually prevents further large fires by allowing space in between all of the trees. Nature is a pretty amazing thing when you think about it.

One thing that does thrive in the Black Hills are mosquitos. We stayed at the quietest and most private campground at Sylvan Lake and were greeted by a million mosquitos. They didn’t care if you were covered head to toe in clothes and bug spray they would land all over you anyways. We quickly set up camp, leveled our RV, plugged in for electric, and set off on a hike. Addy grumbled the whole way about another hike until she started finding really cool rocks. Eric had changed into his hiking boots that we carted across the country and boy was he having a field day. Walking straight through every puddle and scrambling on every rock. Maggie loves to run and wanted to test her legs to see if she could still do it so she would run a few yards and come back to hold my hand and then run again. We hiked to the lake which is surrounded by these neat round rocks. We scouted out our hike for the next day (Addy continued to grumble) and then headed back for dinner, a campfire, and sweatpants since the temperature was dropping.

Sunday morning we did the BEST hike of the entire trip. Ask anyone and they will tell you it was their favorite. The hike was appropriately named The Sunday Gulch. A Gulch is a narrow and steep-sided ravine marking the course of a fast stream. We didn’t quite know how steep this hike would be but I guess the handrails going down the rocks should have been a clue. Nonetheless it was so fun!! We let Eric go first since no one can seem to hold that boy back and the rest of us gingerly followed behind. It was a little challenging for Maggie since you have to be tall enough to support yourself on the handrails as you descend this crazy ravine and get your footing at the same time. Greg and I would alternate helping her navigate the path and she did great! We all couldn’t stop smiling at our unexpected fortune of finding this gem. We kept saying since it was Sunday and we couldn’t make it to mass this seemed like our own sort of Church that God had placed there for us. We felt so blessed.

Sylvan Lake was a hit and we thought about staying a second night but figured the drive home would be much easier if we didn’t tack on another day. We spent Sunday exploring the town of Custer, touring the Crazy Horse monument, and Mount Rushmore. Crazy Horse is slated to be one of the biggest stone carvings once it is completed. I honestly don’t think it will be finished in my lifetime but it was pretty amazing what they have done so far. The sculptor, his wife, and 10 kids moved to the Black Hills after they were commissioned by Chief Henry Standing Bear to build this statue to honor Crazy Horse who was killed under a truce while trying to negotiate with the US Military. Maggie, Addy, and I did a fun scavenger hunt through the museum and then Maggie earned a rock from the monument as a prize. She was pumped and we added it to the million rocks that we seemed to be carrying across the country.

Mount Rushmore was even more impressive because after you go through the pain of parking you walk up this hill and are immediately greeted with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln all stoically looking at you and giving you this amazing sense of patriotism. You have to walk down the hall of flags from all 50 states and territories where you get to the greatest viewing platform. Eric at this point was done seeing faces carved into stone and had wandered off. The rest of us were in awe. We did our due diligence at the gift shop as we figured it would be our last stop for souvenirs. Joke was on us because we went to the Badlands and they were pretty awesome so of course we stopped at that gift shop also.

Oh the Badlands… The Badlands are beautiful striped hills that seem to jump up and hit you in the face. One minute you are driving on a dirt road supposedly in the middle of them and then all of a sudden you climb a hill, turn a corner, and bam there they are! Greg and I rolled into the boondocking area for the Badlands around 6pm, enough time to catch the sunset but also late enough that the prime spots for parking had been taken. Trying to find a somewhat flat piece of land with enough room for our RV and a spot where once you open the door you don’t fall down the cliffs was a little bit of a challenge. I was definitely on the verge of a panic attack when I got out of the RV to help Greg turn around for the second time and saw the back end dangling over the cliff with my whole family inside. It sounds more dramatic than what it was but I was just glad once we parked and set up camp for the night. I thought I had relaxed enough with a glass of wine and dinner but then the sun went down and the coyotes came out. Boy were they close and loud! They quieted down eventually and the night sky started showing off. The milky way came out and the stars were magnificent. Our kids were up till almost 11 that night hanging out with us and checking out the stars.

We left the Badlands the next morning after we drove through them (very windy and dramamine had not kicked in for Maggie yet) to get to the visitors center. They had a great explanation of the sea that was there before it dried up and left the sediment behind causing the Badlands. Maggie had a blast practicing her reading with all of the signs and we all watched the archeologists at work in their lab as they painstakingly dusted off fossils.

South Dakota was impressive with its different topography. The sun hit the landscape at all these different angles and the colors that popped were wild! It was such a contrast from back East that we all were in awe. I am pretty sure it was one of those states where we were constantly reminded of how big and vast our country is.

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