After leaving the Badlands we drove to Rapid City. We had planned on eating at a brewery we saw advertised, but instead (based on Yelp reviews) changed our minds and went to Murphy’s Pub which was a very nice surprise with food we really enjoyed. The town of Rapid City was cute. They have statues of US presidents literally on every street corner and I enjoyed trying to guess who the statue was of before we reached each sign.
After lunch we bought some provisions and drove to the Black Hills National Forest where we stayed at the Sheridan Lake Campground. This was our first experience in a National Forest and we found it to be very different from the National Parks we’ve been to; there were less amenities but also less restrictions. We decided to be a bit ambitious for dinner and we cooked pork with sauteed vegetables. Dinner turned out really good and we had an excess of food. Unfortunately before we could enjoy eating dinner it began to pour. We threw our gear under the picnic table (for a little rain protection) and ended up eating in our tent. It thunderstormed all night, which put a damper in our plans to enjoy a campfire. My only real complaint about the night was that there were not showers at the campsite.
After a quick breakfast at the campsite we drove to Hill City, one of several small towns in the Black Hills, to ask about backcountry camping. The visitors center suggested a few hiking routes. Before setting out on our hike however, we had to go see Mount Rushmore.
Next we started to get ready for our hike. We chose about a 12 mile loop which started at Horsetheif Lake and joined the Grizzly Bear Trail to Harney Peak which is the highest point in South Dakota. Our loop followed Harney Peak Trail back. By the time we started our backcountry hike, it was 2:30pm.
The start of the hike was very beautiful going past tall rock spires. About a mile into the hike we passed a hiker going the other direction who warned us about trees blocking the trail. A short while later we passed a few signs also warning about the trees and suggesting the trail be avoided. Well, we went on. In hindsight it was a mistake. Tons of trees were down for the majority of our hike (which we later found was caused by beetles killing the forest) not to mention the hike was mostly uphill (maybe we shouldn’t have picked the tallest point in the state to hike to). We ended up camping at about the 4 mile mark instead of our 6 mile goal. It was very difficult to find a good campsite, due to the amount of vegetation and the slope of the ground. Although it was against the park rules, the best spot we could find was near a stream, pretty much right on the trail. Since it was getting dark and we didn’t see anyone else for hours, we decided to just camp there.
In the morning we started as early as we could. We passed two other backpackers and a dog cleaning up their camp. They actually had decided to turn back rather then complete their 2 night hike. We reached Harney Peak at 9:30am (after dropping our gear for the final hike to the peak). Harney’s peak was populated with a very cool old fireman’s lookout post which we enjoyed. The remainder of the day was spent hiking back down on many many switchbacks. Overall Harney Peak was worth a hike, but we should have opted for the shorter day hike from Sylvain Lake that most hikers seemed to be enjoying. We finally made it back to Hill City where we literally took the last hotel room. (And thank goodness we got the last hotel room, we were going on three days of hiking the Badlands and Blackhills without a shower).
Hill City is a very cute little town full of stores and restaurants for the tourists. We were very surprised to find a large number of winery’s. To treat ourselves after our hike, we went to the Prairie Berry winery for a free tasting of 5 wines of our choosing. Because grapes don’t grown in South Dakota, the winery had a very interesting assortment of wines including apple, pears, chokecherries, buffalo berries, and rhubarb. While it was interesting to taste the flavors, the wines were a bit sweet for our liking. Afterwards we stopped at the Naked Winery where I did a wine tasting and Jon did a beer flight. The wines were more traditional and to our liking, however the Naked Winery had an adult theme with names like Vixon (my favorite wine there), and others you’ll have to visit to the website see. The descriptions match the names and I suggest you go to their website and read the back label descriptions if you want a chuckle. We ended the night with dinner at the Alpine Inn. The Alpine Inn has a very short and cheap menu; a bacon wrapped filet mignon. You get to pick if you want 6 oz or 9 oz (for $10 and $12, respectively).
The next morning we needed a bit more time to recover from our backcountry hiking, so we hung around the hotel doing some very needed laundry, blogging, and repacking. When we finally got going we decided to visit Wind Cave National Park. On the way to Wind Cave we did a quick drive by of Crazy Horse.
Wind Cave offers a 4 hour spelunking tour which seemed very exciting, but we were worried that it would be too much after our previous backcountry hike. Unfortunately the tour was sold out, so that made our decision easy. Instead we took the 1.5 hour Fairgrounds tour. Wind Cave is one of the largest cave systems known and only a small fraction has been explored. The most unique feature of Wind Cave is that it was formed by a lake which means it doesn’t have stalagmites but instead has a rare boxwork formation.
After the tour we followed an old gravel road through the Wind Cave Park looking for animals (like our guide book directed us). We weren’t sure that the road was one we should have been on, but it was a fun and pretty drive through the prairie. We saw buffalo and so many prairie dogs that we never want to see one again. We tried to get lunch in the town of Hot Springs but were surprised to find everything shut down! It seemed as though half of the establishments were for sale and the other half closed for Sunday. We ate at the only open place we saw, Smokin’ T/B BBQ which was a small outdoor stand.
We drove back to Rapid City for the night where Jon’s parents would be joining us for Yellowstone. Thanks to them we stayed the night in the very nice Adoba Eco Hotel.
The next day was my Birthday!! At the hotel breakfast the waitresses brought out a mini-muffin with a candle in it. One of them asked me how old I was and was very taken back to find out she asked a 30-something their age and that I wasn’t 19 and traveling with my parents and brother.
From the hotel Jon and I drove to Devils Tower. Devils Tower was very cool, I was surprised by its size in person (larger than I expected) and then confused to read that it was only 1.5 acres at the top. We took the 1.3 mile hike around the base of the tower and then got back on the road to work our way towards Jackson, WY.
There really is a lot of nothing in WY. For miles we didn’t even see a tree. We had decided to take the quickest route to Jackson which run through Casper, WY (rather than visit the more popular tourist destinations of Cody or Buffalo). For a late lunch we made sandwiches after stopping at a grocery store. We got to Casper a bit before dinner time, but it was pretty empty. Because Casper didn’t seeming very interesting or worth strolling around, we decided to drive to the next town, Riverton, where hotel prices were a bit cheaper. We didn’t get to Riverton until late and their main attraction, the Wind River Hotel and Casino was out of rooms for the night. Rather than hang around the casino we booked a hotel on Kayak.com. When we got to the hotel we were a bit disappointed. It was undergoing a renovation and it seemed like we were staying in a construction site.