Is that Woodrow Wilson? Or Wind Cave National Park and a Mt. Rushmore Drive-By

From the desolate, barren landscape of the Badlands we drove two hours into the South Dakotan Black Hills. After stopping for fresh vegetables we had lunch in a park in Rapid City and then headed for free wifi. On our way out of town we were stopped at a light when I glanced over at a statue on the corner. Once we agreed it was Woodrow Wilson we started trying to remember if he was a South Dakota native (we thought not). Luckily the mystery was cleared up because at the corner of the next stop light was JFK. Rapid City seriously respects the presidents.

We left the town to try and find a free campsite on public land in the national forests that surround the area. Climbing the hills from the flats of Rapid City, the landscape abruptly became populated with dense conifers as we gained altitude. Huge boulders and sheared cliff faces rose on nearly every side of us as even higher mountains appeared before us. After turning off onto a steep two lane road we began climbing up a series of switchbacks and one lane tunnels. It was all breathtakingly beautiful. After a while we saw a cleared area complete with picnic tables and paths leading to trailheads. Campsite found. We hiked in a short way and set up.

View from our tent

View from our tent

After spending our night perched atop a hill away from the day use area, we wound our way down the other side of the mountain through dense conifer forests which broke periodically into stunning vistas of cliff faces and the valleys below. Deer and pronghorns grazed in meadows and the valley floor. We arrived at Wind Cave National Park in mid-morning and descended over 200 feet below the surface into the maze of underground formations. The largest cave system in the world, Wind Cave still remains unexplored beyond the first hundred miles or so. The cave is famous for its examples of boxwork and popcorn structures. The hour and half tour, complete with 450 stairs, led us through multiple chambers and passageways, each stunning with variations of structures.

Wind Cave

Wind Cave

Wind Cave

Wind Cave

Wind Cave

Wind Cave

Wind Cave

Wind Cave

Boxwork formations

Boxwork formations

Popcorn Formations

Popcorn Formations

Travelling from Wind Cave toward Mt. Rushmore we came upon a herd a bison grazing by the road who ever so kindly posed for us. We then climbed back into the mountains toward the huge cliffs which rose above us as we crested the last hill. Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln looked impossibly large looming over us, but we opted to continue on rather than paying $11 to park and take closer pictures. We did pause at another pull off but honestly it was mostly to admire the majesty of the cliffs themselves rather than the monument. Another descent and we were on our way to Wyoming.

Cliffs at Mount Rushmore

Cliffs at Mount Rushmore

Our final destination of the day was a remote clearing 20 miles up a mountain in the Black Hills National Forest. We passed countless deer and cows along the public lands all their fawns and calves as we made our way through sparse conifers and thick birch forests that broke into overgrown meadows. This night however, though there were cows grazing in the fields below us, we were not serenaded during the night.

Birch Forest near Campsite

Birch Forest near Campsite

Finally, fun fact of the day: ponderosa pine bark smells like caramel!