Mount Rushmore on a rainy day.

Roadtrip Day 8: Rushmore, Black Hills, Wind Cave, Hulett

Friday, September 22, 2023
Rapid City in the morning
Mount Rushmore National Monument
Hiking the Black Hills
Wind Cave National Park
Wyoming’s Open Range
Hulett, Wyoming

Upon waking up on this 8th day of my trip, anxiety was my dominant emotion. I was worried about keeping up with writing down all that I’d been experiencing; I was bothered by issues I’d been having with my web host; I was anticiparanxious because I was coming up on the end of what I had been able to really plan prior to embarking on my trip; I was perhaps a wee bit frightened about the unknown—humanity’s oldest nemesis.

Of course, my rational brain knew that I could have just started writing in a Word doc and not worried about publishing everything immediately in WordPress, but my ADHD parts were really insistent that I write and format at the same time exactly as readers would see it. It knew that my perfectionist parts weren’t being realistic in wanting to nail down every step of the coming weeks in secure detail. And deep down, I knew that the call to adventure was by definition a call to the unknown, which was a draw in itself.

But ultimately, all of the above were merely fleeting feelings and the ghosts of sleep on the road, so I managed to half-heartedly run through some abbreviated meditation and morning stretches before wandering out into cool and drizzly Rapid City morning.

Despite my distraction, I briefly admired some of the many presidential statues that line the streets of historic downtown Rapid City—”The City of Presidents“, since I hadn’t gotten a good look at them the night before. All 44 presidents up through Obama are present (new statues are only added after they’re fully out of politics). All are the same size and fairly realistic, aside from (Fun Fact alert!) Taft, whose statue is skinnier than he actually was, purely to save money when casting the metal.

I ended up just a block away from my hotel at a coffee shop for breakfast and WiFi so I could continue troubleshooting my web hosting problems and perhaps get a bit of writing done. A couple hours later though, I was running up against my hotel’s checkout time with no good resolution to the issues, so despite feeling frustrated I got a move on.

Driving Southwest out of Rapid City toward Mount Rushmore, the weather turned shittier. The drizzle intensified into straight-up rain with the potential for “severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hail” per the local radio station. On top of that it was either quite foggy or I was entering the cloud layer as I drove into the Black Hills, so I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to see Mount Rushmore.

Nevertheless, despite the rain and fog, the Black Hills were immediately quite beautiful. If anything, the weather lent an even more magical aura to the beautiful rolling foothills carpeted by hardy evergreens. It all made me hopeful for some good hikes, even if in the rain.

Embarking on this roadtrip, I thought I’d gone into it with an open mind, ready for any experiences I’d have, but I kept being (pleasantly) surprised as I drove along. For example, passing through the small town of Keystone, SD on my way to Mount Rushmore I was taken aback that there was such a bustling, modern, touristy little town smack dab in the middle of the Black Hills. In retrospect of course, it makes perfect sense given the proximity of Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Badlands, and many other lesser known sights in the region. All in all, being constantly surprised during travel is quite a fun way to grow past one’s inherent assumptions.

A few more curvy ascents past Keystone, through misty forests that showed evidence of recent fires, I pulled over to take a selfie with the Mount Rushmore sign. It seemed weirdly incongruous, as the sign seemed randomly planted on the side of a road with nothing else visible (yet). But then suddenly, a bit further down the road, faces loomed from the mist. I of course had to utilize the handy pullover and take some pics of this first view of the Monument.

Photo of Mount Rushmore from a distance, in the mist.
Mount Rushmore is suddenly there after a turn in the road.

Even though the roads had been fairly sparsely populated so far that morning, I was surprised by just how crowded this National Historical Site was, even as I pulled into the entryway and parking lot. Thankfully, it was quite efficiently handled, so I barely had to wait to get into one of the several covered lots and find a parking space. Unfortunately though, this is one of the few National sites that charges for parking—$10 in this case.

Photo of Mount Rushmore from the visitor center.
Simultaneously humanly beautiful and naturally profane.

Mount Rushmore itself somehow seemed smaller than I expected, but also more grand, or maybe stately is a better word. It was also more apparent than I anticipated just how out of place it really is—faces of colonization literally carved into the aeons-old faces of rock, all amidst a landscape of quiet natural beauty. The visitor center and viewing area also contributed to a jarring feeling, even as, in isolation, they were quite nice and well-kept. Perhaps it was just the presence of so many gawking, out-of-shape tourists that turned me off.

Despite all these conflicting emotions about the place, I was certainly going to make the most of it, so I proceeded to “hike” the very short Presidential Trail that circles from the visitor center to the base of the scree pile, down to a Sculptor’s Studio building, then back up again.

The Presidential Trail was prefaced by quite a few warnings about how many steps it was down and up again, but after completing it, I think the signs were specifically geared toward “average American” tourists, not for anyone in even halfway decent shape. This was further evidenced by the fact that I only saw maybe 10 other people on the trail, even though there were hundreds milling up on the visitor center (where is everyone’s sense of adventure‽)

That being said, it was actually interesting, in that the trail’s progression highlighted each president’s sculpture one by one from unique angles, utilizing natural formations of rock and tree to focus the viewer. I also found the built-in amphitheater to be impressively sized and I could imagine the grandeur of listening or watching an event with Mount Rushmore towering in the background.

At the bottom of the trail (to the right, or a bit Northeast of the visitor center) is the Sculptor’s Studio—a small museum dedicated to how the monument was actually made, with scale models and cool information about the tools and methods used. One of the original three Ingersoll Rand compressors used to pump air up the mountain to power jackhammers was on display. And almost as an afterthought, there was a small display mentioning the “Hall of Records” that captured so many conspiracy theorists’ minds after National Treasure II came out (when are they going to make number 3?).

It was just about Noon and no longer raining when I got back into my car, and hiking more of the beautiful Black Hills was firmly on my mind. The Park Ranger had pointed out a few likely trails in the area that would fit my busy schedule (I still wanted to get to near Devil’s Tower, WY by that evening). Ultimately I decided to try for the Sunday Gulch Trail, about 45 minutes by car from Mount Rushmore. I shook up some protein powder and water for lunch, and journeyed onward.

Photo of the view East toward Sunday Gulch Trail.
The view East toward the Sunday Gulch Trail from the pullover on Rt-87.

As I drove, I was sorely tempted to take a short detour and try to see the Crazy Horse memorial-in-progress since I was in the neighborhood, but I’d already heard from several people that it just wasn’t worth it. Not only was there a cost ($15 at the time), but the sculpture is of course still incomplete, and worst of all there were no hikes to explore it up close, so you may as well just enjoy the many pictures of it already online.

So instead I continued driving a little off the beaten path down switchback-filled, narrow roads toward Sylvan Lake, where the trailhead supposedly was (and which was one of the filming locations for National Treasure II: The Book of Secrets). After gingerly passing through some hairpin turns and the narrow Hood Tunnel, I skirted a handful of cars parked on the side of the road (wondering as I drove by if there was anything interesting there) and continued past as GPS told me. I soon came to the Lake entrance…But found out that it’s actually part of a South Dakota state park, and so entry came with a relatively hefty fee.

A quick u-turn allowed me to Nope out of there, right back to where I’d seen cars precariously parked on the side of the road, as it had now become apparent that I wasn’t the only person who didn’t feel like paying $20 for a short hike.

I was a bit trepidatious as I set out on this trail, for a few reasons: 1) cell service was spotty in the Black Hills in general, so I wasn’t able to do as much prep and research of the trails as I usually would; 2) I had bears on my mind since this was my first hike in forests “out West”, even though apparently the Black Hills are actually fairly bear-free; 3) I was acutely aware of the time, and constantly felt rushed to do and see all I wanted to do an see; 4) I felt sneaky for bypassing the state park entrance fee, so didn’t want to get “caught” by anyone else hiking from the nearby lodge.

So I ran! As I so often end up doing every time I go for a hike anyway. I explored down a bit, close to the backside of the lake, but due to GPS issues, decided not to risk going too far. Then I hikejogged back up and did some scrambling to get a better view, and apparently to face a fear of heights I didn’t realize I had. Perhaps it was that I had no cell service and there was no one else around that made me nervous to scramble too quickly up the narrow, craggy, sharp granite spires. But in any case, I made it up and took in the gorgeous views for a while, in lieu of hiking further.

Photo of the view of the Black Hills near Sylvan Lake.
View of the Black Hills near Sylvan Lake (which is to the far Right of the pic).

In all, I think I only hiked about half a mile, and spent only half an hour up there, but it was still an incredible experience that made me truly love the Black Hills [and as I write this many months later, the Black Hills remain one of my favorite spots of the entire trip].

There was now another decision point. I needed to travel Northwest to get into Wyoming and up to Devil’s Tower where I intended to camp for the night, but there was another National Park I could get a stamp from just 40 more minutes South of Sylvan Lake. I think the endorphins from such a fast and thrilling hike made me decide to aim for the stars, so I turned South and made my way toward Wind Cave National Park.

Along the way, as I drove out of the Southern end of the Black Hills and into a more plains-ish landscape, there was a pullover with signage pointing to a Prairie Dog City. How could I resist? I joined a large group of Harley-riding bikers and a tour bus of retirees in the parking lot and watched the squirrel-adjacent rodents as they looked back at us. It was interesting seeing the “city” they formed—many entrances to an underground network that spread across a fairly large area next to the road. And based on the presence of signs and the parking lot, it was clear that prairie dog cities stay in one place for quite some time. It makes one wonder how extensive and bustling it was under ground.

Once I arrived at Wind Cave National Park, I was disappointed to learn that all public tours of the caves themselves were cancelled for the foreseeable future due to the main elevator to into the caves being out of order due to hard to find parts being broken.

Interestingly, my apartment building back home in Philly had had a similar issue just a few months earlier which took over a month to fix, due to the necessary parts only being available for order from China (despite being American-made elevators originally). It got me thinking a lot about supply chains, manufacturing capacity, and business opportunities for multi-axis milling and 3-D printing of custom replacement parts—it shouldn’t take months of time and intercession from China to make mechanical fixes. But that’s a deepdive for another time.

Thankfully, the visitor center museum at Wind Cave is quite extensive and worth a visit on its own. There were not only several rooms dedicated to all of the amazing mineral forms found in the caves (some unique to Wind Cave), but also some wonderful exhibits showcasing the wildlife of the Great Plains, as the National Park of course includes everything above ground as well.

I also happened to make it just in time to join a brief above-ground tour covering the discovery, ecology, and mythology of the Wind Cave system, ending at the original entrance that was “discovered” by some teenage settler boys looking for adventure. Of course in reality, it was known by local Native tribes for centuries, possibly millennia before Europeans arrived. Either way, though, it’s hard to imagine being some of the first humans to see a small hole in the rock that either expelled or sucked in large quantities of air depending on time of day and air pressure, and then decide to shimmy down headfirst to see what was down there…[shudder].

After I’d seen all there was to see it was already about 3:30 in the afternoon and so time to finally head off toward Wyoming and the campsite I planned to stay at that night.

There was a little bit of backtracking through what I’d already driven, including some portions that had clearly gone through a wildfire cycle fairly recently. But I passed through the Western portions of the Black Hills fairly quickly as the roads started to straighten out, the craggy spires turned into softened hills, and the forests thinned out.

I had just begun to speed up as I crossed the border into Wyoming on Rt-16, with no traffic ahead or behind me and a gorgeous, undulating landscape split by a straight-shot road in front of me, when I had to do a literal doubletake as I drove by some rancher’s gloriously cheeky joke—an open range (stove) advertising the open range (prairie) it sat in….

Photo of an Open Range in a Wyoming field.
An hilarious welcome to Wyoming!

It was funny and surreal enough to cause me to wear out my breaks and clutch as I quickly came to a stop, turned around, and pulled over to take some pictures in an atmosphere of cool drizzle but relative silence. In some ways, the “Open Range” made me feel completely at home and left me feeling elated as I continued onward. It felt like a quintessentially random “roadside attraction” that justifies the entire idea of a road trip; the best kind of blend of humanity and nature; irreverent humor and reverence of nature; a poignant and fun counterpoint to Mount Rushmore’s jarring stateliness.

I got back into my car newly energized but also calmer—I actually slowed down to under the speed limit as I continued from there—and the awesome beauty of Wyoming leapt out at me even more as I drove the last couple hours of my day.

The landscapes along every stretch and turn of road were spectacular, highlighted by occasional stray rays of warm sunlight that pierced through the everchanging cloudscape as I drove. Past ranches that felt timeless in their stillness, and forests and hills that felt youthful in their wildness, I was entranced. Past herds of pronghorn bounding fences through grass, to herds of cattle and other livestock simply wandering the open range minding their own business, I was delighted.

In retrospect, I think a not insignificant factor of Wyoming’s raw beauty was the lack of other people. It’s the least-populous state in the union (total population around 590,000, with over 10% of the people living in the capital of Cheyenne), so the roads were empty and much of the landscape fairly untouched (even taking into account the many large ranches I passed). When we give space to nature, it begins to dance, and invites us to dance with it.

Photo of Devil's Tower with farmlands in the foreground.
Approaching Devil’s Tower in the evening lambency

As I closed in on my destination for the day, I began to see glimpses of Devil’s Tower as early as 20 minutes before passing it, through breaks in the hillscape and forests. For some reason I’d always pictured the geologic feature to be in the middle of a desert (perhaps I conflated it with Monument Valley in the Southwest), so I was enthralled by the beauty of Devil’s Tower in fact rising above rolling farmland that had recently been harvested. Similar to how Badlands surprised me, the immediacy and closeness of Devil’s Tower to highways, roads, and, well…regular life, made it feel simultaneously more mundane yet also otherworldly.

But I actually drove past Devil’s Tower for today (I’d return to actually see it the next day), and proceeded to the small nearby town of Hulett, WY.

I’d found the Screaming Eagle Campground after doing some googling looking for sites that catered to tent campers, or at least had good reviews for being quiet. It seemed like a mom & pop shop (and it very much is!), and best of all, it’s walking distance to the one-street “downtown” of Hulett. The owner is super friendly and accommodating, and I do definitely recommend it.

After parking in the campsite and saying hi to the local deer, geese, and squirrels that were also wandering about, I walked over the bridged Belle Fourche River and found dinner at the Ponderosa Cafe (really, the only restaurant I could see that was open in town). Indeed, it was half-closed up, as it was already off-season and so business was slow. But the service was friendly and the food was fantastic—and shockingly cheap to my East Coast city sensibilities. There was a prime rib special, and how could I resist?

Afterwards, I wandered a few hundred meters down Main Street to basically the only bar in town—Captain Ron’s Rodeo Bar—which looked straight out of Road House (the 1989 Patrick Swayze version, not the stupid remake).

As I always do when I go to a bar, I brought my handy iPad mini with the intention of having a local beers, people watching, and getting some decompression reading done. At the Rodeo Bar, though, that plan soon went out the window.

First of all, the cast of characters was amazing from the moment I walked in. The U-shaped bar was fairly full, and a couple local regulars across from me were good-naturedly holding court and bullshitting for the bar, as Kelly the bartender served suds and shots to all and sundry. I think I might have read a few pages during my first hour there, but it was mostly re-reading the same lines over and over as I listened in and enjoyed the camaraderie.

It didn’t take too long for me to start chatting with Kelly (originally from Georgia but who loves Hulett and is considering buying the bar from the current owners to keep it running with love and care), and not long after with the group of three bow-hunters from Wisconsin who were sitting next to me. And so the book was out, and the booze and schmooze was in.

The hunters—a father, son, and friend of the family—had an interesting story as well. They’ve come out to Wyoming for years now since they’d gotten friendly with a local ranch-owner who liked their Midwestern, no-nonsense style and respectful approach, so gave them basically free reign on his property once a year, allowing the hunter crew to bypass the extremely expensive hunting permit process that would normally be required for hunting on public lands.

Kelly also had some great stories about Hulett and working at the bar. At one point I asked her what time of year was “off-season” vs “on-season” around there, and from her perspective, it’s really quite even for most of the year. Paraphrasing what she shared [with any errors or misquotes being purely due to the author’s own fallible memory]:

“From April onward it’s busy, with turkey hunters first, then families crowd the region for their June vacations, followed by car people in July for various races. August is all about Sturgis, which is really a festival that crowds the entire region with bikers, not just the one town of Sturgis, SD. Then September through November brings bigger game hunters—deer, mountain lion, speed goats [antelope], and elk. And lastly, throughout the winter, you get sniper teams from both police and military coming through to train by hunting prairie dogs, which local ranchers appreciate since prairie dogs are pests that just dig up land and cause livestock injuries.”

My memory definitely gets fuzzy as we got close to closing the bar, but eventually I stumbled back to the campground, took a long and luxurious pee behind a tree, and curled up in my back seat, since all plans for setting up my tent had disappeared not only due to drunken laziness, but also because it had begun to steadily rain.

Day 8 Distance: 217 mi (349 km)
Total Trip Distance: 2,140 mi (3,444 km)

Next Up: A hungover exploration of Devil’s Tower, then driving across Wyoming through the town of Buffalo, Bighorn National Forest, and Tensleep Canyon over to Cody, WY.