My girlfriend and I decided to do New Years a little bit differently this year. Instead of making plans a month in advance at some bar that would charge $100 just to get in the door, we figured we’d spend it checking out some of the more out of the way National Parks and State Parks.
Actually, as it turned out the parks we decided to visit ended up being on the way. I had driven from Denver to Chicago to spend Christmas with my family, and passing through South Dakota on my way back to Denver would really only add a few hours. So the decision was made and we booked a hotel in Rapid City, SD for two nights, $50 per night. Rapid city is about 45 minutes from Badlands National Park and about 30 minutes from the Black Hills so it’s a good launching point.
We made the 12-hour drive from Chicago to our hotel in Rapid City and spent the night with the plan to hit Badlands in the morning. The next day was cold, as it usually is in the high plains in late December. But we weren’t bothered! The great thing about the winter is it drives away the crowds. And as long as you layer up, the cold and snow just make for beautiful views and solace. Upon arriving in Badlands we realized we had the whole park to ourselves. Almost immediately we drove right past a herd of Bighorn sheep led by a huge ram. As we admired the breath taking, 30 million year-old rock formations, we also noticed a small herd of Bison down at the bottom of the canyon-like area. I suppose they were sunning on this beautiful 25 degree New Years Eve.
We drove the scenic 30 or so mile loop and then hit a trailhead and tied on our boots for a hike. We hiked about 8 miles on rocky but flat terrain that took us along the edge of the canyons. We didn’t encounter and single person the entire hike. So Badlands lived up to the hype, and if you ask me the snow, cold and solitude made it even better.
We spent New Years Eve on our hotel bed drinking wine and eating hotel pizza, not so bad! We celebrated the New Year on east coast time; we had to be up early for The Black Hills.
The next morning we packed up and headed out as we were driving straight to Denver after our hike. We first stopped at Mount Rushmore. Now I have heard a lot of people say that Mount Rushmore is pretty underwhelming. I don’t know what people expect to find when they get there, but we thought it was pretty cool! It’s a very impressive thing to accomplish. Whether I agree with building it in the middle of one of the mot sacred places to Native Americans we forcibly displaced is a topic for another day… which leads me to my next point. I love western history and have read a lot about the Native Americans who once freely roamed the lands here. The Black Hills was one of the most precious pieces of land to one of the most powerful tribes, the Sioux. It felt very interesting being in The Black Hills. Here I was enjoying the roads and trails carved into this spectacular wilderness while at the same time feeling guilty. This was one of the last places the Sioux held onto as long as possible, until it was ripped away by the US government for mining of desirous minerals. Again, this is a rant for another day. We did really enjoy ourselves.
The next stop was Custer State Park, home of the famous rock formations The Needles: beautiful, narrow, almost out-of-place looking rock formations that jut out of the dense mountain forest. We drove a road called the wilderness loop in hopes of seeing bison, and we saw more than our fair share. We had stopped at a ranger station on the way in to ask about hiking conditions, as we did not have snowshoes with us. After recommending some trails the ranger asked if had ever driven through a herd of Bison, we had not. Apparently in winter the bison love to lick the salt off cars, so it was not unusual for them to block the road and lick away until they had their fill. Not more than ten minutes after leaving the ranger station, we were stopped by a herd of at least 100 bison that proceeded to lick every inch of my car. It was amazing, both hilarious and terrifying at the same time. They are feisty creatures, so often times they would end up head-butting and skirmishing over who got to lick where, with no regard to the vehicle prone to bison horn damage nearby. Luckily, after about 15 minutes the bison were satisfied and we were able to drive away with the car unscathed.
Now we were ready for another hike, we headed to Sylvan Lake for a hike to the top of some of the beautiful stone spires so famous in the Black Hills. It hadn’t snowed in a few days so most of the snow was packed down enough not to sink in too deep. We started on a trail with Little Devils Tower in mind. Ultimately we got lost and found ourselves a couple miles from the trailhead in a spot that appeared to be either a dead end or a very sketchy climb up steep, icy rock. Around this point we also found a very strange out of place setting: a table with chairs and a bookshelf? In the middle of the fairly primitive Black Hills this felt very out of place. Then another couple of hikers made their way to the spot and seemed excited to be there. They informed us that this was called The Poets Table; it had a reputation as a spot where people did all sorts of interesting things. They had searched many times and never found it, so I guess this was the cancellation prize for us getting lost. The bookshelf was actually filled with books, or what appeared to be books with people’s handwriting all over them, and all over the surrounding rock. Maybe poets did this, maybe drug fuelled hippies, maybe both, I don’t really know but it was kind of cool. Anyway, the couple was able to get us back on the trail to Little Devils Tower.
We made our way up the trail a few more miles and eventually reached our destination, the last part being a scramble up some rocks scattered with ice and snow. It was worth it, as it always is. Beautiful views in all directions, and you can actually see 3 states from this point (South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska, but we didn’t know this at the time). I had snuck a bottle of Champaign in my backpack and we popped the bottle at the top. Once again, we had the place to ourselves, and it was one of the best New Years I’ve ever had.
Written by Kyle Barrett, Founder of Bighorn
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