Friday, August 31, 2018

Sightseeing Fun in the Black Hills of South Dakota

This summer in the Black Hills was significantly cooler and wetter than most years.  In fact, there was more rainfall on one particular day than the area usually receives in a four-month period!  As a consequence, wildflower blooms were prolific and the landscape remained a lush green throughout the season!  On the flip side, the weather prohibited us from doing as many outdoor activities as I would have liked on my parents’ days off from work.

Like Forest Recreation Management, from whose employment my parents resigned (see blog of July 1, Crazy Horse/Korzak's Heritage  provides its employees with a discount VIP card to area attractions.  So we continued to explore and experience the beauty of the Black Hills as my human parents work-camped, focusing particularly on those places we did not have an opportunity to visit in 2015.  I was thrilled to do so much fun stuff without the need to delve into my cheese purse strings!

We traveled to Sundance, WY to visit the Vore Buffalo Jump.  This sinkhole, used from 1500 to 1800 by the Plains Indians to trap buffalo, contains the remains of 10,000 bison and thousands of arrowheads and butchering tools.  And to think that only 10% of the sink hole has been excavated!  Bison were the lifeline of several Plains Indian tribes, providing food, shelter, and clothing.  The Indians considered a bison sacred, and they felt blessed to receive its “gifts”.  Therefore, they were true conservationists and once they captured and killed a bison in the sinkhole, they utilized every bit of it.  Nothing was wasted, not even the bones.  They used the bison’s hair to make rope and its hooves for rattles.  They even used bison brains to tan hides!  Very interesting stuff and a real archeological/paleontological treasure.

We took a motorcycle ride up to the Tri-State Museum in Belle Fouche, where admission is always free.  This is a very small museum providing local history.  For example, did you know the U.S. is the top producer of bentonite, with the majority mined between the Black Hills of SD and the Big Horn Basin of WY?  Bentonite is a naturally-occurring mineral used for absorption of moisture in a variety of products, from Tabby's kitty litter to laxatives, from cardboard to putty.  (Learning this type of trivia is great training for appearing on Jeopardy!)  Belle Fouche also boasts being the Geographic Center of the Nation, and it erected a monument outside of the Tri-State Museum.  Of course, driving to the ACTUAL location of the geographic center was not possible—it is down dirt roads in the middle of corn fields some 20 miles away.  

Geographical Center of the USA Monument

Termesphere--Art in the round!

Me dressing up at the Museum!

Our motorcycle tour also lead us to Spearfish, home to the D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery.  We enjoyed the mini tours offered at the Hatchery, which was created in 1896 to cultivate, monitor, and control the trout populations within the Black Hills.   The beautifully restored wood fish rail car was particularly interesting.  There is a lovely public park where weddings and other special events can be held as well as a large public campground where you can occupy a spacious site nicely situated along the creek.  We are certain that friends Matt/Sherry will luv their volunteer work-camping gig here. 

Residents of the Hatchery

Looking for a free meal!

RV Park has sites that back up to this fast-flowing creek

Speaking of friends, we had a chance to visit with fellow Quartzsite RVers Jim/Brenda and Jim/Barb at their ranch properties in Pringle.  They have 40+ acres each, providing both couples with a generous piece of paradise.  We wish them many years of happiness enjoying the natural wonders of the Black Hills.

Dad and the gang.  Mom and me acting as team photographers--sometimes its a 2-person job since I don't have fingers and she doesn't have a good eye for taking pics!

My parents’ work schedules usually precluded them from participating in any evening activities.  But when they learned Rapid City was hosting the band 80s Station for one of their Thursday Night Summer Music Concerts, they asked if their hours could be coordinated so that they both worked the day shift of 8-4.  Since they did not create major hardship by asking for time off and never made any scheduling demands (as many other workers had done), management honored their request.  So immediately after they clocked out of work at 4 p.m., they changed their clothes and we booked it up to Main Street Square.  What a great time!  Mom and Dad reminisced of their early dating days, having met on a dance floor in a NJ club!  And the band was great, playing GoGos, Cars, Bangles, Devo, Ramones, and other popular “new wave” songs.  Mom and Dad looked like idiots, but they danced the night away.  It was the most nighttime fun they had in over a month!

80s Station Performing The Bangles tune "Walk Like an Egyptian"

We also motorcycled up to Deadwood to spend a fun-filled afternoon with fellow Escapees/Xscapers Jim/Brenda and Matt/Sherry.  Deadwood is on the National Register of Historic Sites and is well worth a visit if you have never been there.  We perused the shops, one of which had a huge train exhibit for us to enjoy, courtesy of the Northern Hills Railway Society.  80 feet long, 16 feet wide, it consists of 350+ engines and 1,200 feet of tracks!  They even had a little "treasure hunt" within the exhibit, having visitors "find" certain things within the setup.   We learned some great history at the Visitor Center (which was not build yet when we last visited in 2015), and even enjoyed a nice lunch at Maverick’s.  Then we ventured outside to watch a reenactment of an old West street shootout.  I even got deputized, although Mom/Dad missed this milestone in my life—they were busy yapping to friends Angie/Ray (with whom they work-camped for two peak seasons at Amazon’s Dallas/Ft. Worth Fulfillment Center), who just happened to be passing through SD for a few days.  It is a small world in this RVing lifestyle.

Me and Matt horsing around!

Train exhibit includes Rapid City businesses...

...and sites like Homestake Mine's Ross Shaft

In fact, more Amazon friends and fellow RV Dreamers Harry and Vicki were here in the Black Hills work-camping as well.  So we enjoyed dining with them at my fav area restaurant, the Powder House Lodge.  This place is terrific.  Always friendly, courteous, prompt service.  To steal the tag line from an Arby’s commercial, Powder House Lodge “has the meats”:  Bison, elk, venison, beef.  The place is a carnivore’s carnival!  But hey, don’t worry, it offers vegetarian/vegan options as well.   We dined here 6 times this year, and each time was as good as the first.  Yes, Powder House Lodge earns one of my coveted 5-cheese awards!

We also got together a few times with new friends, Dave and Carol, with whom my parents worked at Pactola Lake within Black Hills National Forest, albeit briefly.  I was so thrilled that their Service Dog Ginger remembered me and greeted me warmly!  She is such a lovely, gentle lass.

We rode up for the 78th Annual Sturgis Rally a few days before its official start.  Heeding the advice of friends and fellow motorcyclists, Phil/Rudee, we rode the scenic back roads rather than drive through Deadwood, taking in the sensational views of Vanocker Canyon.  Absolutely breathtaking.  I admired the bikes parked in Sturgis, from new models to classics.  I marveled how no two bikes are alike.  Each is an expression of its rider's individualism.

And it got me to thinking.  It's time for a new ride—for me!   I'm tired of riding double--I want my own iron horse.  I've narrowed down my choices.  What do you think?  Which one represents me, PoPo the Rambling RV Rat best?

We purchased the requisite shirts, patches, and essentials like gloves, getting back on the road just as things started to get a bit busy in town.  We completed the day with dinner at the Powder House Lodge, Rated the #1 Black Hills Restaurant by me, PoPo, the Rambling RV Rat.

We met up with Sherry/Matt and Brenda/Jim once again, this time in Hot Springs for the Falls River Hot Air Balloon Festival.  Watching the balloons take off was quite cool.  Interestingly, the balloons all had different carrying capacities: one fit 8 standing adults, while another had a single passenger sitting in a seat.  Seeing the balloons get airborne was definitely worth the inconvenience of rising at 5 a.m.  However, the rest of the festival activities were a bust.  Only four vehicles arrived for the classic car show, and they left within an hour due to lack of audience.  Store owners did not open their shops until late morning.  Activities scheduled to take place seemingly never happened.   But we all made the most of it, enjoying lunch at The Vault and the camaraderie and friendship of some terrific RVing friends.

Due to my parents’ work schedules, we didn’t hike nearly as often as we would have liked.  We did portions of the Mickelson Trail on several occasions, and Mom used the trail to hoof to work several times, too.  So we got our money’s worth from the $15/person annual trail usage fee.  We also hiked Trail #9 at Sylvan Lake for the first time, which leads you to the lookout at Black Elk (formerly Harney’s) Peak, the highest point in South Dakota.  The trail was quite busy that day, despite the fact we did not start the 6+ mile round trip hike until late morning.  There is a bit of rock scrambling as you near the top of the peak (especially if you have short legs like my Mom and me), but we persevered.  We were quite exhausted as we returned to the parking lot, Mom more so since she took a downhill spill.  She is quite a klutz, but fortunately, has never had any significant injuries.  We also hiked Big Rock Trail in the town of Custer.  It is not a long hike, but it has a significant change in elevation, so it is good for revving up your heart rate.  The lookout points offer panoramic views of Needles, Black Elk (Harney) Peak, and Cathedral Rock.

Although we purchased annual passes to Custer State Park for our truck and two motorcycles at a cost of $45, we only utilized the passes on three occasions during the entire summer.  Most recently was Labor Day, which offered glorious weather for motorcycling and few tourists on the road.  We challenged ourselves to Iron Mountain Road, a 17-mile stretch consisting of 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 pigtails bridges, and 3 tunnels.  As you travel through two of these narrow tunnels, you see Mt. Rushmore, as if in a picture frame.  Of course, I wanted to stop to take this iconic photo, but Houston, we had a problem—a Class A motorhome on the other side of the tunnel, despite the many warning road signs, just realized he couldn’t fit through!  Now he was trying to turn around, no easy feat with traffic building and narrow roadways with ditches/drop-offs along the shoulder. What a cluster!  We also rode the Wildlife Loop, but frankly there was little wildlife to be seen:  a few white tail deer, a couple of bison, and only 3 begging burros.  We saw a large herd of buffalo in the distance, but they look like chocolate morsels in my photos.  Oh well.  We had a truly wild wildlife experience here in 2015 (see blog of July 26, 2015, so I was not terribly disappointed this time around.  I got my fill of bison anyway--on my dinner plate!  A delectable bison filet minon cooked to perfection served at--you guessed it--Powder House Lodge!

Because of weather and work schedules, we only went out with Rat Patrol as a family a half-dozen or so times this summer, which is sad considering all the wonderful trails the Black Hills offers. (Don’t tell my parents, but I got out a little more often than they did, doing a few joy rides without their knowledge!)  One outing was exceptionally cool—going up to Bear Mountain Fire Lookout.  It was a sunny day with few clouds in the sky, so you could see quite a distance away, especially at a 7,166 foot elevation!  One advantage to the rainy summer is that the incidence of wildfire has been quite low.

We spent a day in Keystone, first taking a ride on the 1880 Train.  This stuffed rat thinks this is one of the best attractions in the Black Hills.  Informative (did you know that the Black Hills encompass an area the size of Delaware?) and entertaining narration, picturesque views of Harney’s/Black Elk Peak, wildlife sightings—what’s not to love!   This steam train has one of the steepest grades of railroad tracks within the U.S.A.

We then visited Rushmore Tramway Adventures.  The VIP pass entitles us to one free trip on their zip line, alpine slide, or tram.  As you probably suspected, Mom nixed the zip line immediately.  She also voted “nay” on the Alpine Slide (apparently it conjured bad childhood memories of the Super Slide at Seaside Heights Casino Pier Amusement Park.  As Mom tells it, back in the day, you used a burlap sack to come down the slick Super Slide.  Well, Mom’s sack got dislodged and she got “stuck” midway down her lane.  Can you imagine the embarrassment?  And what a spectacle it must have been (thankfully, I was not part of this family yet).  My Grandma, always a worrier, was overcome with tears of fear. You would think my Mom was being trampled by Godzilla instead of just sitting completely uninjured on the runway halfway down the slide!  The ride attendant had to close down all the lanes on the slide, which resulted in several disgruntled patrons.  My Grandpa, a man of few words but forever the family’s protector and guardian, was like Mighty Mouse coming to save the day.  He climbed up two stories of stairs to assist the attendant in physically removing Mom.  And like most siblings, my Aunt Laurie watched this sitcom unfold from the sidelines—laughing hysterically.  I know what you are thinking:   What the H-E-double hockey sticks does this story have to do with the Alpine Slide?  Apparently Mom is now just traumatized by any amusement which includes the word “slide”.)  Luckily for me, Mom has overcome her fear of heights and agreed to do the tram ride, which provided some nice aerial views, including of Mt. Rushmore.  And once on top, you can enjoy two types of gardens—flower and beer!  Rushmore Adventures offers something for everyone to enjoy.

View of Mt. Rushmore from the tram mountaintop

My suggestion for future modifications to the monument

We then popped into the National Presidential Wax Museum to see the figure of #45.   Truthfully, I was a bit perturbed by the blatant bias displayed by this institution.  Instead of having him as the focal point at the Presidential Podium like they did for President Obama back when I visited in 2015, they have President Trump hidden around the corner. Furthermore, every other presidential wax figure is depicted in the White House or in a defining role/iconic moment during their Presidency (G. W. Bush at Ground Zero, LBJ getting sworn in with a blood-spattered Jackie O acting as witness, JFK in the Oval Office with young John-John playing under his desk, etc.)  President Trump is depicted on the campaign trail, with his campaign plane in the backdrop.  Now this stuffed rat is not the least bit political.  But the way I see it is, if this is the National Presidential Wax Museum, the current President should be given center stage, just as the museum did for previous standing Presidents. And regardless of personal opinions about ANY President, I agree with Tiger Woods:  we should show a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T (to quote the late great Queen of Soul), if not for the person, then at least for the office of POTUS.  Nuff said.  I shall now depart from my soapbox!

Where's #45?  And why the heck is G. W. Bush front and center?

I am happy to report that the citizens of Keystone have revolted against Pie for the People, a pizza joint that I bestowed my Stinky Cheese Award in 2015 for Worst Pizza EVER!  (  It is no longer in business; a new establishment, Boss’ Pizza and Chicken, has taken over the location since we last visited.  We were skeptical about ordering pizza in SD after our many failed attempts in 2015 to find a decent pie.  And Dad didn't want to deviate from his whole food/plant based diet for a mediocre meal.  After much pleading on my part (I've had cheese withdrawals), my folks agreed to take the plunge.  I will say it was quite good, especially for this part of the country.  And reasonably priced as well (14 inch $12.99).  It ain’t like what you get in NJ or NY (and for some odd reason, this part of the country cuts a round pie into squares rather than slices!), but it was a vast improvement from what was offered in the past--it even has cheese bubbles!

Another attraction well worth visiting is Fort Hays Chuckwagon and Mt. Rushmore Tours.  We could have done an entire 8-hour field trip with the VIP pass (valued at $99/adult), which includes an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast, followed by visits to Crazy Horse, Sylvan Lake, Needles, and Custer State Park, ending the day with a Chuckwagon Dinner and Ho Down. Since we have visited these areas ourselves and see Crazy Horse every single day, my parents didn’t want to forfeit their limited time off from work riding a bus.  Therefore, we opted just to participate in the dinner and peruse a few buildings used on the movie set of Dances With Wolves.  Truthfully, I didn’t have high expectations of the food and suspected the entertainment would be a bit hokey.  Boy, was I pleasantly surprised!  Valued at $29.95/adult, the quality/quantity of food for the dinner was pretty good.  More importantly, the musical entertainment was terrific!  The group’s repertoire included Roy Rogers, Merle Haggard, The Beatles, Bob Seger, Neil Diamond, Charlie Daniels, even some great Motown hits!  There are multi generations of band members, and before taking the stage to entertain us musically, all the band members fulfill the role of servers of chow to us guests!  Great, great fun!  We left that evening to a downpour of rain and watched one spectacular light display.  No, it wasn’t the Crazy Horse Legends in Lights Laser Show, but one intense night sky lightening storm.

We visited Ellsworth Air Force Base in Box Elder, 11,000 square acres which is “home” to approximately 8,000 active servicemen/servicewomen, spouses/significant others, and children.  Other than an on-site school (kids are sent to Box Elder Public Schools), the base is like a mini town, containing all the amenities you need:  gym, theater, ball fields, bowling alley, churches, PX, etc.  First established in 1942 as an Army base, it eventually became the home of 150 Nike Silo Missiles, all of which have since been decommissioned.  It now houses more than two dozen B-1B bombers. Take the bus tour to visit one of the missile silos!  If your guide is half as good as our driver Bob was, you won’t be disappointed!

Our whole-food, plant-based diet requires us to go grocery shopping more often than we did in 2015.  Back then, we went once a month to Rapid City and stocked up on meats.  We would supplement by ordering non-perishables from or and have the packages delivered right to our campground doorstep.  We currently and previously shopped locally at Krull’s Market in Hill City just for fruits/vegetables.  But Krull’s does not have products like non-dairy cheese, tempah, tofu, tahini, cashew milk, etc.  Nor are there any Sprouts, Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s in Rapid City at which to purchase these specialties.  Fortunately, we found a food chain in Rapid City that carries many of these items:  Family Faire!  On one excursion to Rapid City for grocery shopping, we took a side trip to Chapel in the Hills, a Norwegian place of worship built in 1969.  It’s a beautiful replica of a traditional stave church built in Norway in 1150.  Its architecture is steeped with symbolism.  For example, the three pillars represent the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the twelve staves represent the Apostles.   Lutheran services are still held regularly in the Chapel.  Beautiful grounds (including a small cabin containing traditional Norwegian decor/artifacts), although single-family housing developments have begun encroaching upon this spiritual haven.  I walked along the Meditation Trail, thanking God for giving me the opportunity to explore such hidden treasures within our bountiful, beautiful country.


We would like to thank the following organizations for all the great service and support they offer to the RVing community:

 Escapees RV Club



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RV Dreams

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  1. Wow, you certainly took advantage of your VIP pass and saw a lot of great attractions! It was great seeing you guys, maybe we will cross paths sometime this winter.

  2. Sure is lots to do in that area. We would love to visit there but that would take time away from our winters in the south. Nice that you got to visit with so many others. Safe travels and see you in Q!

  3. Well Well Well ==== Another GREAT adventure!! We passed right by the sign for Geographical Center of the USA!! At that time there was nothing buy construction - not interested on two wheels! Loved the story - lots of great memories