Memorial Day Weekend - May 2003
Black Hills of South Dakota

When we first returned to Colorado after living overseas, Carolyn and I spent every Labor Day weekend in the Black Hills, an area along the Wyoming-South Dakota border familiar to most Americans as the home of Mount Rushmore. Those that have been to the Black Hills know that it is also home to Devils Tower National Monument, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. Despite the fact that we were well aware of what the Black Hills had to offer, we stopped making our annual Labor Day pilgrimage a few years ago. This three-day weekend, we decided it was time to return.

We loaded the Bostons in the car, and left the house around 1pm Friday afternoon. Without speeding, we made excellent time. After surviving the Denver-to-Cheyenne gauntlet on Interstate 25, the traffic became less dense, less hectic and less life threatening. We soon picked up US Highway 18 just south of Douglas, Wyoming and turned east toward South Dakota. At Lusk, Wyoming, the two-lane undivided highway turns north for a monotonous 80-mile stretch of straight road that is uninterrupted by a single traffic light or stop sign. This piece of highway, which connects the cattle towns of Lusk and Newcastle, is the domain of long-haul eighteen-wheelers and local ranchers in old pickup trucks. Just about the time that I was sure I couldn't stand the boredom any longer, we got our first glimpse of the Black Hills a few miles to the east.

Due to a combination of dry roads and plenty of daylight, we reached the western edge of the Black Hills within six hours. It was another hour, however, before we arrived at our cabin, which was on the opposite side of the Black Hills, near the tourist town of Keystone. From Newcastle, Wyoming, US Highway 16 heads east directly into the heart of the Black Hills. Within seven miles, the road enters South Dakota and becomes very steep and winding as it passes through Jewel Cave National Monument. At the town of Custer, the road veers north past the still-in-progress (after 50 years) Crazy Horse Memorial and toward Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota. Near Mount Rushmore, we took the shortcut to Keystone along State Hwy 244.

The cabin that Carolyn reserved at the Hillside Country Cottages was being repaired for a leaky roof, so we were upgraded to the "chalet" at the top of the hill. We had planned on spending the weekend in a cozy little cottage and we ended up in a place that could sleep a dozen people.

The location was ideal. We were about five miles from both Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park, and only 15 miles from Rapid City. The weather was almost perfect, the evenings were slightly cool and the days were warm, but not too hot. The chalet was far enough from the main road that the traffic was muffled by an intervening grove of pine trees, which filled the air with the aroma of their needles.

Shelby, Ali, and Panda had a blast. They were able to go for "walkies" every day and had "steakie" two nights in a row. Shelby and Ali had a tough time walking through the brush and the pine cones hurt their feet, so we stuck to the grassy areas near the cabin. Panda didn't mind either and wanted to explore, so we hiked to the top of a nearby granite-capped hill where I collected some nice quartz crystals from a weathered pegmatite deposit.

The highlight of our visit to the Black Hills was a three-hour drive along the Iron Mountain-Wildlife Loop Road in the vicinity of Custer State Park. The first half of this scenic drive winds through some of the most rugged terrain in the Black Hills, and the second half offers abundant opportunity to view wildlife, especially bison and antelope. To many visitors, the Iron Mountain Road is particularly memorable for its pigtail bridges, where the road loops back over itself to gain elevation, and for the tunnels designed specifically to present framed views of nearby Mount Rushmore.

We headed for home late Monday morning. To avoid the pack of suicidal interstate drivers racing one another home, we took the rural roads through the panhandle of Nebraska. This lengthened the return trip, but also made it a bit more relaxing and allowed us to avoid a rerun of the sights we saw on the drive up. Western Nebraska is not as flat as Kansas, and the rolling wheat and corn fields are surprisingly scenic, although in a subtle way. Eventually, we picked up Interstate 80 near Scottsbluff and there was a noticeable increase in traffic volume. By the time we turned south onto Interstate 25 at Cheyenne, we were fully entrained in the mad rush. Otherwise, the return to Broomfield was uneventful.

Photo Gallery
Panda Ali Shelby

Custer State Park Mount Rushmore Pigtail Bridges

Mount Rushmore Custer State Park Crazy Horse Memorial

Chalet Chalet Chalet