I’m in a wide-open field of grass. Hundreds of bugs the size of a pencil lead mark scramble across my shirt and arms. Pretty much what I asked for.
“This is what the prairie used to be,” a silver-haired ranger had promised, pointing to the northeast corner of South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park—away from the hordes lining up to go on tours of one of the world’s biggest cave systems.
After brushing the bugs off, like you see pioneer types do in Oregon Trail movies, I feel at ease in the mixed-grass prairie playland. (The ranger later could only guess they were springtail fleas, harmless, “but those usually stay in dirt.” Guess I got lucky.)
A field may be fairly flat, but it’s rarely empty. The squeaks of prairie dogs follow me, grasshoppers cling to blades of tallgrass, and the tops of pine trees ahead mark deep gullies where I spot a couple dozen bison grazing by a far-off pond toward steady rises and bigger hills. That I had this to myself was exactly why I had come.
Visitors to the Black Hills are often surprised by its size. Covering 5,000 square miles, the mountainous region in southwestern South Dakota is bigger than Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. This time I’m skipping Mount Rushmore, along with mining towns like Deadwood, popularized by the HBO series, and sticking with a slice of its south, looking for some isolation.
Founded after the gold rush in 1874, Custer is a hub town with history. A museum fills an old courthouse, a Hollywood-style Custer sign looks out from above town (“a guy in town’s been trying to find out how, when, and why that got up there; no one knows,” a local tells me seriously), and the strip of 1950s-style motel courts and cabins aren’t without charm. A reenactor of the golden-haired namesake of town—Lt. Col. George Custer—turns red when I bring up Custer’s doomed charge of a Sioux camp in 1876 and offer that “Custer sort of deserved it, didn’t he?” (I guess the answer is “no.”) The town also has a food truck.
I’m only here to visit the Black Hills National Forest office, where a staff member looks over a regional map with me. Her “B” arm tattoo is the Boston Red Sox logo but stands for her name. And perhaps for Black Hills too. She’s local through and through; she had her prom at Rushmore (back before they Breathalyzed the kids). She was stationed in Kuwait while in the military but never bothered to drive an hour east to see the Badlands. “It’s flat over there,” she explains.
Soon she’s connecting the dots in the Black Hills off the asphalt. Days could be spent exploring these gravel roads, sometimes called fire roads, through pockets of the hills far from the crowds. “This one is the Pleasant Valley Road; it’s a nice one, and it leads to a fun bar in Pringle where we go sometimes. It’s mostly locals.”
I take an afternoon ride, gravel popping up on the underside of my rental. I pass horse ranches, pine-clad rocky peaks, some homesteader-era cabin in tatters, a group of deer by a stream. The only other source of human life is the trail of dust I kick up in the rearview.
Pringle’s a humble sort of place, with a few old brick buildings, just over a hundred locals, and Hitch Rail, a bar that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mad Max film. On its outside deck, a mannequin with an orange-cone hat holds an empty tray and looks unsettlingly like a deadly serious, gray-skinned Mickey Rourke. Inside I sit at the bar and order a pulled-pork sandwich and a local beer. A Mossberg .308 Winchester rifle hangs over the bar—the grand prize for an upcoming gun raffle that promotes a “pig roast,” “poker,” and “kid games.”
A guy in brown felt cowboy hat and worn-out clothes drinks an orange soda out of a can at other end of the bar. Lee, about 60. “I’m into scrap iron. Have a few cattle too, pets really,” he explains in a fading slur. He gently chides a couple across the room for their piece of carrot cake. It’s a very large piece of carrot cake. “You can have some if you want,” they call back. A few bikers come in sporting clean-cut goatees (they’re from “outside Chicago”). The waitress, a heavy-set blonde local, comes back from taking their order in the adjoining room with all the elk heads on the wall. “Apparently we must be in a yuppie area,” she whispers to me, good-naturedly. “They want an orange for their Blue Moon!” Glad I had gone with a porter, straight up.
This is fun, but I cannot shun the real star of the Black Hills, Custer State Park. It’s easy to wonder why it’s not a national park. At 110 square miles, it’s big enough to be one; it’s not divvied up into private hands, as are many pockets of the Black Hills; and it’s popular too (it sees about 85 percent of the visitors of Rushmore’s annual draw of 2.2 million).
Plus it passes the eye test. Of all the Black Hills, it’s home to the most dramatic, thin granite pinnacles, leaning over roadways and jabbing skyward in rolling valleys of pine. Twice I ride along its Needles Highway, a scenic byway built in the 1920s using leftover WWI bombs to create tight, one-lane granite tunnels. First at dusk, then dawn. I see only two other cars at dusk, none at dawn.
At 7,244 feet, Harney Peak is apparently the highest point on the planet between the Pyrenees and the Rockies. It’s a six-mile return hike to reach the top’s bald rocks to scramble across. They’re also home to an old fire watchtower to climb up. A local suggested I go a back way, via the Little Devil’s Tower trailhead that runs along the backside of the Cathedral Spires and into Black Elk Wilderness, where I’d join up with the usual trail just half a mile from the top.
Also, they tell me, go early.
At 7:15 a.m., no other car is in the trailhead parking lot. The climb steadily climbs through wildflower-dotted meadows, opening to views over forests and up groups of khaki-colored granite. After an hour and a half’s walk, the view opens to the east. Alone, I see horizontal strips of colors—creams, tans, greens, grays—as the Black Hills give way to the high plains. The trail rises steeper now, over a ragged path of boulders, and finally to iron stairways that lead through a nook of rocks to the top.
There I can spin around and look over 360 degrees of Black Hills. The wind whips a bit, and the tops of Custer State Park’s wrinkled peaks, built of huddled pinnacles, looks as if they’re trying to stay upright in a storm of pine crashing around them.
I’m there alone for half an hour before a crew of trail joggers with conference-room voices barge into my space. They’re welcome. I start sketching the Cathedral Spires formation to the south in a notebook, and by the time I finish, I look up and see there’s 40 others around me.
I figure it’s time to go. Somewhere there’s a gravel road with my name on it.
HOW TO DO THIS TRIP
Walk Wind Cave’s trails. This national park sees over half a million visitors, nearly all for its cave tours. It also has 30 miles of trails. Rankin’s Lookout is a fun mile-long loop through the forest, with views north and south. Bugs covered me in the middle of the prairie, a mile into the Highland Green Trail.
Hike Harney Peak early. Most climbers of Harney Peak leave after 8 a.m. from Sylvan Lake. It’s a moderately strenuous hike, but I saw many young kids handling it. It can be busy at the top by 10 a.m. or 10:30 a.m. The route via Little Devil’s Tower starts just east of Sylvan Lake.
Drive Needles Highway at dusk or dawn. Custer State Park offers two epic drives. The 14-mile Needles Highway, along Highway 87, runs from Sylvan Lake to Legion Lake in the center of the park. Farther south, the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road is a popular ride at dusk, when I saw at least 40 bison grazing roadside.
Take gravel roads. The Black Hills National Forest sells a rainproof map of the complete region for $20 from their office north of Custer. Various peaks and lakes and communities are to be found off the main roads.