Touring the Custer Area – Iron Mountain Road

After our brief visit to Mount Rushmore, we headed out to the head of Iron Mountain Road just east of the Memorial.

The last of the tourist drives that Peter Norbeck helped develop, Iron Mountain Road is more art form than transit.  Like Needles Highway, Norbeck was instrumental in picking the route of the road in 1933 as Mount Rushmore was being carved. The route for the road was selected to provide a showcase approach to Mount Rushmore from Custer State Park. The road winds up to near the top of Iron Mountain and then down in it’s approach to Rushmore. Along the way, the road twists and turns through rich forests, around three “pig tail” bridges, and through three tunnels.

Driving the road in reverse, we found a small turn off just after going through the first tunnel. There was a historical marker at the location to honor Doane Robinson, who is considered the “father of Mount Rushmore”. We decided the spot was just right for a small picnic lunch and a chance to get out and enjoy solitude and beauty of the route, which was almost more enjoyable after the hustle and bustle of our visit to Mount Rushmore.

Just before leaving, I decided to go back to take a look through the tunnel that we had come through. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it provided a majestic frame for Mount Rushmore going in the other direction.

Refreshed with our light lunch, we continued our drive back to our campsite in Custer State park along the very scenic Iron Mountain Road.

If I were to do it again, I think I’d be tempted to do Iron Mountain Road in the opposite direction, watching for turnouts and places to stop and reflect on the inspiring significance of Mount Rushmore in the beauty of its natural setting in the Black Hills.


Touring the Custer Area – Mount Rushmore

As we got closer to the National Monument, it became apparent that there had been huge changes in the park since the last time we visited (probably 25 years ago). The surface parking lots have been replaced by multi-level parking structures and the gift shop, dining area and visitor center are all relatively new. The last time we visited Mount Rushmore, the Avenue of the Flags was still a relative novelty and was the path you had to walk to get to the visitor center and viewing area for the memorial.

The map near the newer entrance pretty much tells it all; items 1 through 4 were all pretty much added in a major expansion that opened in 1994 to help facilitate the more than 3 million visitors annually.

Even though the attendance the day we stopped was probably only a fraction of what it would likely be in the middle of summer, the place was extremely busy compared to the other places we’d been in the last few days. We stopped at the visitor center to get the passport stamped, made a quick stop at the gift shop, took the obligatory pictures of the monument, and then decided to get back to nature and away from the crowds.

Touring the Custer Area – Needles Highway

We started our morning with a visit to the Custer State Park Visitor Center, just a few miles down the road from our camp site. The visit was worth the stop. They had a great movie about the park (narrated by Kevin Costner) that provided a good background on the history and development of the park. There was also a small area with interactive displays about native wildlife (mostly buffalo) and early exploration. Before leaving, we looked over a large 3D topographical map of the park and immediate vicinity.

We knew that we were going to drive both Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road – both headed generally north towards Mount Rushmore, one to the west side of the park, the other to the east side of the park. The problem was that to expedite our day, we needed to take one out and the other back when both we designed to showcase scenery going out of the park. With no particular rationale, we opted to go to Mt Rushmore on Needles Highway (State 87) and then return to the park on Iron Mountain Road (US 16A).

Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road and the Wildlife Loop together form the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, named to honor the former South Dakota Governor (1917-1921) and US Senator (1921-1936). He was critical in founding Custer State Park, initiating the concept for Mount Rushmore, and laying out the routes for the roads to bring tourists to the sites he founded.

Needles Highway was initially deemed impossible to construct, but Norbeck persisted, coaxing road engineers to get creative  and ultimately create  a road through the Black Hills that effectively followed horse trails, fourteen miles of narrow roadway, sharp curves, narrow tunnels that necessarily have to be driven slowly so everyone traveling has a chance to experience and enjoy the ruggedness of the Black Hills. The road was completed in 1922 and hasn’t changed much since the day it first opened.

Shortly after we made the turn onto 87, we found a buffalo grazing just off the road.

The road was relatively wide with smooth, easy curves early on. About 5 miles into the ride, though, it started getting a bit more rugged, with granite outcroppings alongside the road. Around one of the turns, we found a small parking turnoff called “Hole In The Wall” picnic area. We pulled off the road to get a few pictures and give Tyler a chance to exercise. He wasn’t too interested in exploring the small cave, but he did enjoy following the short path alongside the granite wall.

Just after the stop at the picnic area the road started getting more curvy and narrow as the rock outcroppings got larger. In short order, we were climbing and started catching sight of the granite “needles” that gave name to the highway. Along the route, we rounded a curve to see a mountain goat grazing by the side of the road.

As we reached to highest point on the road (about 6400 feet), we found some fantastic views that helped us get perspective of the Black Hills as a large, tall, rocky island in the middle of the high plains.

The road traveled along a ridge that cut through the needles, including some narrow tunnels along the way that the road is famous for. We also passed through some woods at the high elevation that had some snow accumulation from the precipitation the night before. Having camped down in the park, we knew well enough that it had rained all night. Apparently, the only thing that separated us from snow was the 1500 feet in elevation that we climbed along the highway.

As we left the park, we passed the peaceful Sylvan Lake Lodge and the road opened to a wider two lane highway that would carry us to Mount Rushmore.

Touring the Custer Area – Wind Cave and Jewel Cave

As we left the Wildlife Loop Road, we headed south on Hwy 87 towards Wind Cave National Park. Seeing that Kathy had her Passport, we figured we’d take the opportunity to get a couple more cancellations – one at Wind Cave National Park and a second at Jewel Cave National Monument. Both parks were in range and the drive would give us an opportunity to see more of the Black Hills.

The caves in Wind Cave are reportedly some of the world’s oldest caves initially forming over 320 million years ago. They were formed through the eons by combinations of erosion, upheaval, and more erosion. Found by settlers in 1881, the complex cave system in the park includes over 100 miles of explored passages. Barometric wind studies, however, estimate that only 5% of the total cave has been discovered.

After our visit to Wind Cave, we headed out to another cave area, Jewel Cave National Monument. Jewel and Wind caves are about 20 miles apart “as the crow flies”, about 30 miles by car. Neither of us had ever been to Jewel Cave so we had no expectation for what we would find. Quite honestly, I kind of figured it to be the “poor step child” to Wind Cave. Nonetheless, the stop would provide Kathy with another cancellation in her passport for the national parks and monuments.

We found the road to Jewel Cave on Hwy 16 just west of Custer. The sign and road were unassuming and led to the site’s visitor center. Kathy got her passport stamped and we decided to visit the small museum to find out more about the park.

It turned out the story about the park was fascinating!

Much like the companion Wind Cave, settlers stumbled on Jewel Cave in the early 1900’s when two miners found an entrance that was too small for people to enter with a blast of cold air coming out. They  proceeded to open the entrance and investigate the cave, finding low ceilinged rooms coated with “jewel-like” crystals. The commercial value of the “jewels” was low, but there were attempts to develop the cave site as an entertainment and amusement center.

The attempts weren’t successful, and the two miners eventually sold the claim back to the government and in 1908, the cave was proclaimed a national monument by Teddy Roosevelt. Development was slow until 1959, with approximately only two miles of the cave discovered and mapped. With questions of the significance of jewel cave being raised, a geologist who enlisted the aid of wo rock climbing enthusiasts embarked on a more dedicated exploration. By 1961, the discovered and mapped length was 15 miles. The discoveries led to more investment and interest in the cave system into the early 1970’s.

Exploration has continued, and today jewel is the third longest cave in the world with an explored length of just under 192 miles to depths of 830 feet. The museum includes a painted mural that shows the extent of the cave system.

Because the structure and development of the cave is like Wind Cave, there is speculation that the two caves may be joined and exist as a single cave. My impression of Jewel Cave being a poor step child to Wind Cave was totally blown out of the water by this visit.

We didn’t have a chance on this trip, but maybe in our future travels we’ll have a chance to do a bit of spelunking in the caves underneath the Black Hills.

Touring the Custer Area – The Wildlife Loop

Custer State Park started as a game preserve and the Wildlife Loop Road was one of the first roads laid out in the park. The drive goes in a circle through the open grassland and rolling hills nestled high in the Black Hills. The road is deliberately laid out in the area most likely to provide sightings of many of the animals for which the park is famous. The best part of the Wildlife Loop is the fact that it will most likely be different each time you visit – because the animals roam freely through the park, there are no guarantees and each hour of each day could be different than the last..

We weren’t too sure what we’d see on our wild life drive, since Custer had just conducted the annual Buffalo Roundup the Friday before. Each year, the park herds all their buffalo into corrals for inspection, shots and culling. Within days, the herd is released a bit at a time to return to their grazing land. Since we were so close to the roundup, we weren’t sure how many buffalo had already been released.

Not too surprisingly (considering the season), the road wasn’t very busy and we cruised slowly watching for signs of animals. It didn’t take too long before we found Pronghorn Antelopes casually grazing near the road.

Just before we reached the halfway point on the loop, we decided to take a gravel road turnoff (Old Draw Road) that we thought would give us a chance to get an overview of the buffalo corrals. The quiet road was better than we could have hoped! We found a spot to park that gave us a great overview of the corrals as well as a chance to take a walk with Tyler and simply enjoy the quiet in the middle of Custer.

As we continued along the draw, we found ourselves getting closer to the corrals and the buffalo moving to the open range. We had a great chance to watch the herd walking through the pines along the edge of the corrals under the watchful eye of the lead bull.

As we neared to point where the draw rejoined the loop, Kathy noticed an interesting artifact in the grasses close to the road – she found a buffalo skeleton and skull lying in the open.

Just as we approached state highway 87 to head towards Wind Cave, we ran across one last bit of wildlife – a flock of turkey’s rummaging alongside the road.

Days 4 and 5 – Touring the Custer Area

Custer State Park is one of the nation’s largest state parks at 71,000 acres and just a couple of days are barely enough time to just scratch the surface in terms of what the area has to offer. Every road is a scenic panorama and the area is loaded with wild life. Besides the state park, there is also one national park and two national monuments in the immediate vicinity of Custer. The area is also sprinkled with numerous small towns, all of them quick to invoke their western and mining heritage with attractions, tours, and shops.

For our first full day in Custer, we planned to “take a ride on the wild side”, starting with the Wildlife Loop and then tour to Wind Cave and Jewel Cave to give Kathy a chance to get some more stamps in her National Parks Passport book. For our second day, we planned to do a couple of the scenic drives that Custer is noted for and make a stop at Mount Rushmore so Kathy could get one more stamp.