The Black Hills National Forest was a place we were both really looking forward to seeing. It is one of the most sacred sites for numerous tribes, and the birthplace of the Lakota. It is also the location of Mount Rushmore – depending on how you view it, a monument to American’s presidents and “ingenuity,” or a desecration of the natural environment and tribal land.
After leaving Deadwood, we headed into the Black Hills. While Deadwood sat in a little circle of development, as soon as we left the area, the trees and snow lined the roads we traveled. We came across a little town called Keystone just to the south, that we both would have rather stayed in. Nothing much to write home about but much quainter than Deadwood, and we came across a Florida license plate, which I was extremely excited about (though I never had the chance to accost the owners). Again, gambling was still present, but on a much lesser scale than in Deadwood.
We chose to drive the Iron Mountain Road, a road that boasts the most switchbacks, pigtails, and tunnels in the US. It was spectacular! After leaving Keystone, we only had to drive a few miles before we saw a small sign indicating that we were about to hit Iron Mountain. Before we could get it on it though, we were first stopped at the beginning by a hilarious, weather-beaten old woman who told us we had to wait for the pilot car to return in order for us to proceed. A pilot car, which we had never encountered before, is a vehicle that guides your car around the washed out bits, holes, and other nefarious dangers that could destroy your car. While we waited, we were regaled with stories of how her and her husband used to run a camp ground outside of Sturgis, and all the insanity that came with massive amounts of motorcycle gangs who would stay over. She was charming, and I wish we could have spent more time chatting with her… but the pilot car awaited.
We (safely and dexterously) weaved our car through Iron Mountain Road, stopping at scenic overlooks to see snow capped peaks, wily chipmunks, and a peak of Mt. Rushmore. We saw gorgeous lakes, both natural and man-made by dams that reflected the azure sky from its depths. We also took a moment to pull over and hike down to an overlook, where we left a medicine bag from Prairie Star Gallery, hanging from a juniper to wish us safe travels through our journey.
The drive was spectacular – amazing geological spires that rose from the surrounding hills, lakes that perfectly mirrored the surroundings, and our first marmot who could care less about us being a few feet away. We quickly realized that the southwest side of the Black Hills were much more magical than the northeast side we had come in on. It was more peaceful with less human disturbance.
As we came out of the Black Hills we hit the Thunder Basin Grassland, which demarcated our exit from South Dakota, and entrance into Wyoming. It embodied every sense of what a grassland should be – endless expanses, pronghorn antelopes grazing in the distance, and Devil’s Tower on the horizon. It was a nice transition from the mountains, but we quickly saw that landscape change. We started seeing the horse-head drilling rigs (the stereotypical rig most think of with oil drilling) and gigantic coal trains traveling along side us. We passed through Laramie and Gillette, WY, both hot spots for coal and oil extraction. These towns were fringed by abandoned equipment and trash, and proved a foil to the scenic mountains and vistas we had been seeing. It was a reminder of how the vast wilderness can be marred by the greed of humans. It was a sad place to travel through.
Outside of Buffalo, WY, where we would stop for the night, we saw our first glimpses of the Bighorn Mountains. The aptly named mountains are gigantic – with glorious snow capped peaks breaking into clouds, they were truly something to behold. We drove through them the next day, reaching the highest point on US-14 at an elevation of 9,666 feet! We wound our way through switchbacks, climbing and descending in elevation. We stopped at a lookout and off in the distance on a footpath, was a gigantic moose – just ambling along taking his sweet time nibbling on aspen trees. It was our first big wildlife sighting, even though we could only see him through the binoculars. Another really cool part of Bighorn was the signs telling us the rock formation ages we were driving through. We were driving through formations that had been around for 500 million to 3 billion years! It makes you feel very small to realize that the rocks right next to you had been around for eons, and our lifetime was just a blink of an eye in retrospect.
Our next stop was the Wapiti Valley outside of Yellowstone, where we would have three whole nights and four days to explore, a much needed break after hopping from state to state, and multiple states, in one day.