As our last mission in the Black Hills, we aimed to climb the highest peak in South Dakota (in fact, the highest peak between the Rocky Mountains and Europe!). At a staggering 7,244 feet, it might not seem like much to those who bag 14ers in Colorado, but from the top, you can gaze out into the plains of South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana.
To reach the summit, we took Trail No. 9 from the Sylvan Lake day-use area in Custer State Park. There are supplies there, if needed, though at only 7-miles round trip, the trail should not take you all day. No permit is required, but they do request that hikers register at the beginning of the Black Elk Wilderness. There is a small fee to gain entrance to the state park.
We set out early and soon overcame and passed the only other people on the trail. There is an abandoned fire lookout tower at the peak, and you are free to climb around and play in it. From the views, it feels as if you can see everything. The entire world is right there, sitting just at the horizon.
As the first to reach the top that day, we were lucky to find a dozing mountain goat, just waking up from its slumber in the basement of the lookout tower. He popped out looking a little dazed, and then a little annoyed that we had woken him up so early.
From the top, standing precariously on the tips of cliffs that drop down into empty black gulches, it’s easy to image why these hills lay virgin until as recently as 150 years ago. While the rest of the West was being tamed and tortured, the Black Hills sat aloof, above it all and dangerously imposing.
The vastness of the West from the summit also gives way to the same visions that quite possibly came to Black Elk as he sat upon the stones, alone, a wondrous survivor of both the Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee.
As Black Elk said: “I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.” — Black Elk Speaks
We took time for a mid-morning snack, testing fate by eating right on the edge of eternity.
And as the rest of the world caught up to us on our secluded mountain, we packed up and headed out, in hopes of finding (successfully) a funky pub in downtown Custer.
Gold was discovered in these hill in 1874, a legacy of the ill-fated Custer. The rush to get rich overtook the territory, turning what was supposed to be the last safe haven for the free-roaming tribes of the West into a White Man’s playground.
The Homestake Mining Company built the first railroad in 1879, and from then on the Black Hills were a Cat’s Cradle of rail scars and the pockmarks of mines.
The Burlington and Quincy Railroad built this path and its cars in 1880, and the rail has since brought a barrage of miners, investors and — now — bright eyed tourists to the wilderness between Hill City and Keystone, South Dakota.
Today, the 1880 Railroad rattles along the ties that bring together history and kitsch, the past and the ineffable present, Hill City — a town of wineries and roughnecks — and Keystone, the town that will always represent the arrogance of the American government as they carved faces of white leaders into land that was supposed to belong to Indians.
But the ride is quiet, lumbering, pleasant. It passes through fields and farms, idling by homesteaders and cabins that have seen better times in the last 100 years. There are followers — local train enthusiasts, our conductor assures — one man with a beard down to his navel on a Harley and a young ferroequinologist, a yuppy in an SUV. They race after us, SLRs in hand, sometimes meeting us at a crossing and at other times just missing us in a fog of whistles and steam and trailing gravel from the tracks. Just to see the train in action.
We arrive in Keystone and find a quiet place to sit and drink, watching the costumed employees flounce around for the tourist groupies. We discovered early on that the walking tour of Historic Downtown Keystone would be more exciting if it were of the open, empty prairies of Wyoming, so we settle in and wait for our next train.
Adopt the pace of nature… her secret is patience.
… said Ralph Waldo Emerson.
… unaware of the terrifying ferocity with which nature can consume all things patient and calm.
Nature is ferocious and tenacious…
… it takes what it wants without regret or retrospection…
… all with an angel-sweet smile on her face.
The George S. Mickelson Trail, named after a prominent South Dakotan politician, runs the north-south length of the Black Hills, 109 miles from Deadwood to Edgemont.
Established first as the Burlington Northern Railroad line that ran between towns and the many gold mines in the Black Hills, the rails were abandoned in 1983.
A handful of outdoor enthusiasts jumped on the chance to make the scenic railroad into South Dakota’s very first Rails-to-Trails project. A packed gravel, largely level trail, it is popular with locals, and many use parts of it for snowmobiles during the long, South Dakota winters that make the narrow, curvaceous roads treacherously slippery with ice and snow.
The pleasant trail passes through canyons of brilliant orange rock, abandoned and not-yet-abandoned gold mines, around rusty equipment and past ghost towns.
We started the day at our campsite, Whistler Gulch, just south of Deadwood. Popular with bikers, it felt like a mini-Sturgis already. It’s an easy bike ride into town, and cheaper than a seedy motel, and our campsite was right across the street from a BLM mine, complete with dangerously enticing, abandoned mining equipment. And, importantly, mini-golf (which is apparently NOT putt-putt in South Dakota). Our goal that morning was the Mt. Moriah Cemetery. “Let’s just ride for a few minutes on that bike trail,” we said.
Two hours and 15 miles later, we had disappeared onto the trail, passing through-riders and those out for a leisurely morning, before the afternoon sun started to bake the air. We did a scenic Deadwood-Lead-Middle of Nowhere loop, taking us up and over cliffs and mines and into the heart of the Black Hills.
The Mickelson Trail does pass through state park land, and they do ask that you pay a measly $3 for use of the well-maintained trail. There are 15 trailheads and maps along the way, and keep a look out for private property, “No Trespassing” signs and active mines (extremely dangerous!) along the trail. Most are clearly marked, complete with photographic histories of the area. If you’re interested in a longer bicycle event, check out the Mickelson Trail Trek, held in mid-September (in 2011: Sept. 16-18), which travels the length of the trail in just about the best time of year.
… what is there to say when…
… after a day that has managed to disappoint you, even though you’re on vacation…
… and you wander away from your campsite, fighting tears of frustration…
… and you hit the edge of a lake and look up
… and all you see is this…
… and it just leaves you breathless?
At the very western edge of the Black Hills sits a monument to both the deepest of mythical mysteries and the wildest of science fiction fantasies. Past and future seem to collide perilously into the failing remnants of an extinct volcano. Mato Tipila. Bear Lodge.
Devil’s Tower National Monument peeks up above the horizon in the northeast corner of Wyoming, a prominent precipice in the seamlessly flat grasslands of the Great Plains.
We circle around, taking in each claw mark from every angle.
Legend says that two Sioux girls were playing in the fields when they came across a giant bear. Angry, the bear chased the girls, gnashing and growling and slashing, and to escape, the girls jumped onto a rock and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. Suddenly, the rock began to grow and grow, and the bear could not climb the mountain to reach the girls; he could only claw in vain at the steep sides. The rock continued to grow, carrying the girls to safety in the heavens, where they play forever as Pleiades.
After our trip around the alien structure, we headed down the road to Hulett, a rough-around-the-edges and pretty rough-in-the-middle town surrounded by oil and gas development and other industrious types.
As we walk into a local bar, the record scratches and all is silent as the friendly bikers with big tattoos and Budweisers give us the critical once-over.
But in typical Pardo fashion, we play pool and sit at the bar and talk about the last time Jonmikel was there, when it happened to be No Panties Thursday. After that, drinks were on our new friends and we were welcomed as locals.
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