This day trip had been a week in the making. I’d originally intended to go the week before, but had a surprise seminar about good customer service set upon me. It’s not something I had signed up for myself, but my supervisors had signed me up for it, gee thanks guys.
Making full use of my $35 a week meal plan I didn’t depart until after eating an early lunch at 11:00 ish. Custer State Park is around two and a half hours away from the Badlands, so I really only spent half a day there. That doesn’t bother me much though, because there is no rush to see it all, I’ll be here all summer.
You would think that for such a popular tourist destination gas wouldn’t be so difficult to find around here, but it often is. I arrived at Custer with just under a fourth of a tank remaining, and a quick look at my google maps iphone app showed that I would need to drive all the way to Custer across the park to fill up. Maybe I’m just spoiled by having grown up and lived east of the Mississippi where population densities are much higher and thus amenities like gas stations are too.
Custer State Park costs $15 to get into for a passenger vehicle, for everyone inside. The pass is good for seven days, and I could easily see spending more than one day here given the time.
As I drove to the other side of the park, my opinion of the place kept going up. The Black Hills area is gorgeous. Perhaps the lack of trees for over a month could be swaying my opinion, but think even coming here straight from Georgia or my home in Wisconsin I would have found it beautiful.
Several kinds of pine trees are easy to find here, as are what look like aspen, oak, and maple. The deciduous trees are still in the process of getting their leaves in and like near the Badlands everything is green and growing. Large boulders and rock formations rise up out of the forest on the northern end of the park, very different from the sloping clay faces of the Badlands. It amazes me how these two vastly different geological zones reside so close to each other. When I was coming into the park there was almost literally a line where the prairie ended and the hills started.
The novelty and natural beauty were somewhat hampered though by the slight but possible chance that I’d run out of gas before reaching Custer, and so I didn’t linger in my eastward push.
The town of Custer has a soundtrack. All along the main street speakers attached to the streetlights play country music to the tourists. It’s smaller than I was expecting. Then again, Wall is about the same size, and serves the same function – a place for travelers visiting the parks to fuel up their vehicles and themselves and find a place to sleep.
At the pump, I’m confronted with a surprise. Regular gas is not only 20 cents more expensive than the plus, I’ve run into that out west a few times before, it’s also only got an octane rating of 85. I seem to recall that Bertha needs 87 so I look up in my manual and am proven correct. At this gas station, the Plus has a rating of 87, it’s a good thing I looked at those numbers before I started pumping. I also saved myself some money.
Right across the street from the gas station is a rickety old building, much older looking that the rest of the trendy little storefronts. I wander over for a peek and discover that it’s the oldest standing building in the black hills area, some military general’s cottage built before the conflict with the Native Americans had really started. It’s now been made into a tiny museum furnished with period household items. I snap a few pictures, and then it’s back into the park.
Time is limited. I could head to the southern end to see the buffalo herds, but I’ve already seen them at the Badlands so it isn’t as pressing a need to me. I stop at the first little lake I find because all of them I passed during the rush for gas were so picturesque looking. With my limited time I decide to try to find and photograph the prettiest lake in the park.
Inside the map I was given on the way in is a picture of Sylvan Lake, located along the northern boarder. The rock formations along the shore are fantastic looking in the photo, and more elaborate than any of the lakes I’d passed on the way in. Seems like a good place to start.
I was expecting to do a bunch of driving through hills and forest to get to the lake, more of what I’d already seen. I definitely was not expecting the drive along what I learned was called Needles Highway.
Humps of rock quickly become rocky cliff faces, and then peaks that rise up above the forest, eroded by time and weather into natural columns and spires – hence the name Needles. The hills grow as I continue heading north, but it isn’t until I reach a break in the trees at an overlook that I realize just how far up I’ve gone in elevation. To me these aren’t hills, these are mountains! It’s also taking me a lot longer to drive it then I thought it would, I’m unlikely to make it to any of the other lakes in fact, but it hardly matters to me at this point.
My poor phone camera can’t catch a break. There’s a silly grin on my face that just won’t go away. I live for moments like this, when nature catches me off guard and my expectations are exceeded in every possible way. How could I not have heard of Needles Highway before, this drive is amazing. My family must have taken it when we went on that road trip all those years ago, but I don’t remember it. Bertha slides through narrow one lane tunnels carved into the rock on three different occasions, and every time I find a beautiful vista waiting for me on the other side.
Once I emerge from the last narrow passage, which has a width of 8′ 4″, I’m staring at the needle, a rock formation that truly looks like a sewing needle, eye hole and all. There are several hiking trails around and I’d love to spend hours hiking them, but sadly my time is limited.
By the time I make it to Sylvan Lake, the level of prettiness on display hardly matters. Like with most of life, the destination turns out to matter far less than the journey did. I snap a few photos of what is admittedly a very nice looking lake, and then it’s time to head back to the Badlands, for now.
See, the pass is good for seven days, and that seventh day happens to be tomorrow, my next day off. And there are hiking trails out there, begging to be walked.