Day Fifty-Five...

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North America » United States » South Dakota » Custer
August 14th 2015
Published: August 22nd 2015
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…was another drive day. Not the usual Point A to Point B, but a beautiful day trip through Custer State Park. One of the other campers a long time ago in a campground far, far away suggested it…okay maybe it was just the campground in Interior a few days ago. We, in turn, passed along the suggestion and vague directions to another camping couple yesterday. I hope they found it and enjoyed it. They left this morning.

The drive is within the Custer State Park borders, but as long as you stay on Highway 16A you won’t have to pay the park entrance fee because Hwy 16A cuts through the park. The moment you deviate from the route there is a booth with a nice Park Ranger or two who will happily take your money and give you a park map and stick a park pass in the corner of your windshield that you will later need a blowtorch to remove. I would suggest getting the pass when you initially enter the park.

The drive actually has two or three loops to choose from or combine depending how much driving you want to do and if you packed lunch AND dinner. We drove the shorter, 70 mile Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway that included the Needles Highway. Be aware…don’t drive (or tow) anything taller than 10 feet or wider than 8 feet.

We began our drive going north toward Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore. We continued past the Mount Rushmore turnoff and began a windy twisty drive through the lush forest and magnificent rock formations. We navigated around tight U-turns at 15-20 mph, under some very low overpasses—the lowest was 10 feet 7 inches high, and through some narrow, one-lane tunnels—the narrowest was 8 feet 4 inches wide. Had to pull the mirrors in for that one just to be sure. I could reach out and run my fingers along the wall as we went through. Kinda nerve-wracking…glad I wasn’t driving.

At one point I saw a turn-off that led to a restroom facility…okay, a fancy outhouse with vault toilets…with the doors propped open…no way to know if we were going into the Men’s or Women’s because inside they were identical. When I finished I checked the back of the door and sure enough I’d used the one labelled Men…I propped the door open again to trick the next user. We stayed for a bit and walked around, followed a short trail until we came to a box that said we had to register and warned us of the dangers of continuing on the trail and what should be in our packs so we’d be prepared for what we may come across on the trail. We turned around. After all, I’d read the book Into the Wild and I didn’t want that to happen to us. I’d also read the book Wild and, even though she lived to tell about it, I still didn’t want to go through what she endured. We stuck to climbing on the rocks there by the parking lot and taking a few pictures.

Further down the road we came upon a dirt road. Mike was curious to see where it might lead us so he turned. It led us to a quiet secluded fishing lake. At the entrance to the “parking lot” was a box to collect your parking fee. It even had a stack of the little envelopes on which you’d write your vehicle info and date of stay. No, we didn’t. And I’d bet the guy who was there fishing didn’t either and he took the best parking spot…the one with the most shade…leaving us the only other spot with shade…just enough to keep the cab of the truck cool…er. There were a few picnic tables in the grass near the lake. I suppose you could swim in the lake if you wanted, but there wasn’t really an area that lent itself to easy entry into the water. It was a lake meant for fishing or so I gathered from the numerous signs posted telling fishermen to not use live bait and something about invasive species. On our way back to the truck we passed a couple of old trees. Mike thought they looked like the trees from The Wizard of Oz…they did.

Onward. More gorgeous rock formations as far as the eye could see. At several places along the first part of the loop you could still see Mount Rushmore and apparently Peter Norbeck purposely blasted the tunnels so you were facing the monument (if you were traveling in the right direction…which we weren’t). I did look behind us after exiting one of the tunnels and sure enough there were George, Tom, Teddy and Abe.

We eventually came to a long line of stopped traffic. Another one-lane tunnel…this one was NARROW! It was fairly high, but it felt as if the mirrors would scrape the sides. It’s interesting the way the road approaches the tunnels, this one especially. There is a straightaway at both the entrance and exit…long enough for longer vehicles to make it all the way through before having to turn to continue on the road. At this tunnel there were also small parking lots on either end without a vacant spot. It was easy to see why it was necessary for the engineers to include parking lots here. The rock formations are plentiful, spectacular and up close and personal. Also watching the cars, trucks and motorcycles drive through the tunnel is a spectacle in itself. The wider the vehicle, the slower it went and the bigger the crowd was to document the event.

We didn’t have to wait long for the line to move. As we neared the entrance I pulled my mirror in…just in case. The wall was RIGHT THERE…close enough to touch…so I did…just like a little kid. Poor Mike had to concentrate on keeping the wheels straight. We crept through the tunnel along with everyone else in front and behind us. Back out in the bright sunshine we headed down the hill. Like I said, there were no parking spots anywhere so all you could do was keep going.

A few miles later we came to a sign announcing Sylvan Lake. We decided to take a lunch break there. It was a popular day to spend at the lake. At the near end of the lake white chairs and a white tent were set up in preparation for a wedding. The backdrop for the wedding was the lake and the large rock formations at the opposite shore. We drove around the lake to where the parking lots were. Cars lined the side of the road. Finding parking could be difficult. Hopefully these cars belong to the wedding. There were 3 or 4 parking lots and they were all nearly full. We found a spot in the large dirt lot furthest away from the lake…it wasn’t that far away, but it was the furthest from the lake. We found a vacant picnic table and enjoyed our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and carrot and celery bites. There is a trail that goes around the lake and as we were eating I saw a group of men, all dressed alike, walking toward the far end of the lake. I’ll bet they were the groomsmen.

After lunch Mike and I headed off down the trail. It was a nice day for a walk around a beautiful lake. The first thing we came across was the swimming area. It was nestled among the rocks that were the backdrop for the wedding. There were dozens of kids and adults on the beach area, in the water and on the rocks. Just beyond was a smaller, more secluded area. This, of course, was occupied by teenagers.

Before we go any further, I’d just like to say that yes, I was drinking water. In fact the soft-side cooler we packed our lunch in had three bottles of water and three more frozen to keep everything cool. Since “that Saturday” it has followed me everywhere. It’s always been in the truck with us, but now it comes with me on outings.

As we made our way to the far end of the lake I spotted the group of men dressed in what appeared to be long-sleeved white dress shirts, black vests and black slacks walking back toward the venue. The path became less of a path and more of a goat trail as it made its way up and over a large mass of rocks. Down the other side were stairs…a lot of them…glad we didn’t come up this way…easier to go down than up. Back on the trail again I began to hear the trickle of a waterfall…from the direction of the lake…Huh? Then I saw the waterfall…yep, coming from the lake between a couple of huge rocks…and just past the huge rocks was the back side of a dam! We were probably 20 feet or more below the surface of the lake. In the top of the dam a spillway was cut and water slid down to a tiny strip of a creek. There was also a walkway built slightly above the top of the dam so kids could look over and wave to the people below.

I spoke too soon about the stairs…what goes down must go back up…and up we climbed…back up to lake level. Yes, we walked out on the walkway. Looked a lot higher from up there. On around the lake we saw a family in kayaks and on paddleboards, a little boy reeling in a 10 inch rainbow trout (Mom, Dad and Grandpa were so excited for him) and people lying in the grass reading and enjoying the serenity of it all.

At the end of the lake where the wedding was beginning to take shape there was a dock where you could rent pedal boats, water bikes, kayaks and paddleboards. I watched amused as a guy in his mid- to late-twenties tried to get up on one of the water bikes. Just past the dock the path continued around the lake but we opted to go up to the road so we wouldn’t be walking directly behind the wedding. The bride and bride’s mother crossed our path on the back of a golf cart. Back to the road where all the cars were parked and who did we come across? All those guys who were dressed alike. The groom stood out from the rest – he was the only one with a cowboy hat.

Back to the truck and back on the road…sort of. I really wanted to go back up to Needles Eye Tunnel and take pictures. It wasn’t that far back up the road so we went. We lucked into a good parking spot and got out. We crossed the road…easy to do when traffic is going slower than a toddler. It was fascinating watching the cars, trucks and motorcycles come and go through the narrow opening. We noticed some kids climbing through the rocks at the side of the road. I wanted to do some exploring. I led the way as we climbed between towering spires. On the other side was a magnificent view of the forest and still more natural stone creations. We stopped and just took it all in for a moment before heading back through. On the road side of the rock wall you can walk to a vantage point where you’re looking down on the vehicles entering and exiting the tunnel. Interesting angle…and funny to hear everyone’s comments as they go in…especially the people on motorcycles because there’s nothing to muffle their comments…even they are awed by the experience.

Crossing the road again, we prepared to back out into the flow of traffic. I thought it best if I directed Mike since, from the truck, neither of us could see if the coast was clear. There was a break in the line of cars coming out of the tunnel so I motioned for Mike to start backing. He backed hesitantly, not wanting to suddenly back into an oncoming vehicle. I saw a crowd begin to gather at the mouth of the tunnel, nearly everyone taking pictures. Curious, I walked over so I could see what all the fuss was about. Mike had plleeennnnnty of time to get backed out and straightened up…I walked to his window and said, “Wait until you see what’s coming out of there.” A tour bus was coming through…yes, you read that right…a TOUR BUS. Obviously this wasn’t his first time to the rodeo. In fact, as he cleared the tunnel he held up what looked like a laminated piece of paper, presumably with some smart comment about a bus going through the eye of a needle, for folks to photograph.

By this time there was quite a long line of cars, trucks and motorcycles waiting to go through. One woman was quite frustrated at having to wait for so long. She paced up and down the long line trying to figure out what was taking so long. I’m sure she was none too happy when she saw the bus come around the corner. As we made our way down, we told a couple drivers what the holdup was. They were amazed.

We were nearing the end of our scenic drive. The closer we got, the more civilization crept in. We finally saw buffalo in a field. There were several and they were all taking their afternoon nap, save one…he (?) was standing on a small rise in the shade of a tree keeping watch. That’s my story. They were actually a herd on a buffalo farm. If we had taken the Wildlife Loop Road we may have seen some wild buffalo and not the Atlantic Farmed Buffalo we did see. Oh well, a buffalo is a buffalo.

It was a great drive and a great day for a drive. I highly recommend it.

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