Touring the Black Hills

We booked two nights at our hotel in Hill City so that we could spend a day touring the Black Hills. We met Caroline’s cousins Wayne and Tom for breakfast in Rapid City and got some pointers from them. We opted to do our morning walk along the river in Rapid City, starting at Sioux Park. It started out well at the pretty park, but after fifteen minutes we were walking beside a busy four-lane road, so we turned around a little early.

The basic plan we worked out was to drive the Needles road on the way south to the Mammoth Site at Hot Springs then do the Wildlife Loop and Iron Mountain Road on the way back north.

The Needles are spectacular granite spires, but the road to them is seriously twisted. With hairpin turns and what Tom calls a ‘pigtail’ (you drive under a bridge and do a climbing 270 to drive over it), the road is often so narrow that you must squeeze over to meet cars coming the other way. Notice I did not say squeeze over onto the shoulder. There is no room for sissy features like shoulders, painted lines or guard rails. Tunnels are just one lane wide, hacked through the solid rock. You honk before entering, because tight bends at either end mean you cannot see what’s coming. We followed a three-quarter-ton pickup through one of the narrow tunnels; he went very slowly – it was a tight fit. After the twistiest part, there are straightaways where you can actually hit the 35mph speed limit!

The Mammoth Site was cool. I expected a museum, but it’s a real dig with a hangar-sized building erected over it.

Long story short: sinkhole formed, stray mammoths fell in and couldn’t climb out, bulldozer driver found big bones. Turns out mammoth feet suck at climbing steep slippery slopes. By counting the tusks and dividing by two, scientists have calculated that there are at least 60.5 mammoths accounted for to date. These guys fell in one at a time over hundreds of years. (The mammoths, not the scientists.) There are probably many more because the sinkhole is at least sixty feet deep, and they’ve only dug down twenty feet so far. Because the bones are not fossilized, they are brittle, so they are leaving many on the ground. That means there are a lot of places where they cannot dig down deeper. 

In the afternoon, we headed back via the Wildlife Loop. We had already seen deer, pronghorns, bison and rabbits, but we actually had to stop for burros. According to the park brochure, they are not native animals, but the descendants of beasts of burden.

Our second dose of challenging driving was the Iron Mountain Road. Compared to the Needles crawl, it was civilized, with painted lines and everything. More pigtails, and two stretches of divided highway, Black Hills style. 

These roads would make a terrific site for a motorcycle race, but we’d need a lot of ambulances.

Got back to our Hill City base too late to do anything interesting for dinner. Restaurants downtown were crowded and their outdoor seating was nixed by a thundershower. Ended up having hamburgers in the hotel restaurant. They were okay, but nothing to write home about.

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