Scenic Drives in the Black Hills and the Buffalo and Burros of the Wildlife Loop

This post combines the driving routes of our first 2 days staying near Custer, including the Needles Highway from the first day and the Iron Mountain and Wildlife Loop Roads from our second day. Whereas we’d planned hikes as well as some general surveying the day before, the following day was all about driving the scenic Iron Mountain and Wildlife Loop Roads. Of course we stopped and took exploratory walks – because that’s what we do – but it was a deliberately low-key day planned for us to relax and enjoy without too much of a goal.

The drive up Needles Highway, as I mentioned in my previous posts, provided incredible views from the peaks surrounding Lake Sylvan and Custer State Park. At the first pass we had the opportunity to see even more vistas than could be viewed from the road after our impromptu stroll on the Sunday Gulch Trail but the second pass at the Needles Eye Tunnel was made unique by the tunnel itself. As we approached the narrow passage in the granite we found all sorts of vehicles pulled over on the side of the road and decided to join them – and scout out the clearance. Just as we parked, a large charter bus came crawling through the 8’4”opening, defying what we all thought was possible – and giving the rest of us smaller vehicles encouragement that we’d be able to make it through. We also watched a wide truck camper drive through a few moments after from our perch above the entrance after having scrambled up the rocks but when it was our turn we still watched our sides very carefully, despite having folded in our tow mirrors. The next tunnel, located below the hairpin turns of the Sylvan Lake area after the Cathedral Spires Trail seemed lower but slightly wider – but you’d better believe we took it just as slow.

Our second day we started east towards Iron Mountain Road, encountering a pulloff at Horsethief Lake a dozen or so miles into the drive. We stopped here to walk along the water and admire the granite outcroppings on the north shore before continuing towards Mount Rushmore. Though neither of us cared to visit the actual monument, we did make a few stops in the immediate area to overlook the rugged cliffs and pine-filled valleys. But with so many people around we decided we’d move on and look for a place where the three of us could take a more extended – and quieter – walk. After traversing some of the famous pigtail bridges, which circle back upon themselves as the road changes elevation, and driving through more of the narrow tunnels we found just the spot to stop. Here we scrambled up the boulders and walked a ways through the ponderosas, enjoying the peaceful beauty of the open forest that we knew we’d be leaving soon in our descent to the prairie.

Dropping out of the rugged hills into the rolling mounds of the prairie was expected but still an impressive change in ecosystem. The ponderosa pines disappeared quickly, replaced by their stubbier coniferous cousins on the hills and by grasses in between. The drive across the open land on Wildlife Loop Road was much longer than our earlier route through the hills but took a great deal less concentration, which was a nice break. It was almost feeling too long however before we encountered our first buffalo sightings but soon after we found a wildlife-rich area where we got to get up close to the “begging burros” whom are not only entirely habituated to human contact, but actually seek it out since many people will feed them. Surrounded by the burros was neat – though they moved on once they figured out we weren’t going to offer them anything – but the most interesting part was seeing two young burros play fighting. Honestly, they were ridiculously cute.

Just beyond the congregating beggars were three herds of buffalo grazing. We could barely see them from the Loop Road but after turning down a dirt side road and walking a qaurter mile across the prairie we were able to make them out. To be clear we got nowhere close to these majestic beasts, but just near enough to make them out at a distance.

Folowing the road north out of the plains and back into the forest we realized we were both hungry, so after taking a spur road to the top of Mt. Coolidge we turned towards to the town of Custer for a late lunch and a beer. Though Mt. Rushmore Brewing Company was closed at the time of our arrival the brewmaster warmly invited us in for some samples and then steered us to a local establishment where we’d be able to enjoy a pint with some food. We promised her we’d return for dinner the following night – and made good on that promise – enjoying a pint of their Rail Splitter Porter with a salad (me) and bratwurst (Tom).

After leaving Custer our last stop of the day was Crazy Horse Monument, an enormous stone carving meant to represent the Oglala Sioux warrior who protested encroachment of white settlers on land that belonging to the tribe. His legacy as a warrior and leader is impressive and would have been wonderful to learn more about but the monument seemed really focused on the (white) sculptor and his accomplishments in shaping the rock. Both Tom and I found the monument and visitor center to be overall uninformative and expensive considering how little work was being done either on the sculpture itself or on providing information on the history of the Black Hills War.

Abby sums up our reaction to Crazy Horse Monument: