Day 3: A Day In The Black Hills

by | Apr 30, 2022 | Travel | 0 comments

Need a little context before reading about our day in the Black Hills?
Part 1 here
Part 2 here

Road Trip Day 2: After Our Day in the Badlands

Whoops! I realized after publishing the last post that I never shared where we went after the Badlands!

We checked into our hotel at Rockerville Lodge (the Main Street Lodge portion) to shower and freshen up before heading to dinner. This hotel was actually recommended by one of the blogs I read when planning our trip, and we snagged the last room they had – the Family Suite. Whoops! We felt a little guilty having the room with two queen beds plus a set of bunk beds, but we were just glad to find reasonably-priced lodging with good ratings. It turns out there was a half marathon in the area that weekend filling a lot of hotels.

Rockerville Lodge was by no means fancy, but it was clean and comfortable and I wouldn’t turn my nose up at staying here again. It was about 20 minutes from Rapid City, but it put us closer to some of the attractions including Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park – pros and cons.

Friday was our actual anniversary, so we opted to do something a little nicer. We ordered dinner from Minervas in Rapid City. (Fun fact: I didn’t realize this was actually a small chain until I was writing this post.) Rob had the champagne chicken and I had the honey pepper salmon. Both plates were delicious, and there was more than we could eat!

Road Trip Day 3: Exploring the Black Hills

Doing the Touristy Things

We loved still being on Eastern time even though we were in the Mountain time zone. We were able to “sleep in” and still be out and about before most of the crowds, even on a weekend.

Rob had never been to Mount Rushmore, so we made this our first stop of the day. It wasn’t “officially” open, but we could pull in and park and self-pay the $10 for parking. (This was one of the few NPS sites that our yearly pass didn’t cover.) It was quiet with only a few other people milling about.

As we stood at the overlook, I said to Rob, “And who would ever think that inside their heads there is a whole store of hidden treasure?” There was a man with a camera and tripod taking shots of the massive sculpture who turned around and gave me this look that I can only describe as “Did I seriously just hear you say that, and do you actually believe that??” L.O.L.!!

We only spent about 20 minutes total at Mt. Rushmore. None of the informational exhibits were open yet but we were able to read some of the plaques. This was kind of a “meh” stop for me, but when one is near a national monument, one goes!

After visiting Mt. Rushmore, we went to see the Crazy Horse Memorial. We spent just over an hour here including watching the short documentary about sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and his family’s continued work on this memorial.

Did you know? The Crazy Horse Memorial is funded by admissions and private contributions. The government offered to help with financing early on but Ziolkowski refused, believing government involvement would affect the rate and quality of work.

We enjoyed being able to walk around the museum and read the different exhibits. Both Rob and I found the fragments of letters from the late 1800s fascinating to read. And, of course – I found this old saddle really interesting! I wonder what it looked like in its prime. I think I prefer our modern saddles!

Black Hills Adventure: Hiking Black Elk Peak in Custer State Park

Originally we planned to explore more of the Black Hills by driving Iron Mountain Highway and possibly stopping at Wind Cave National Park. However, the half marathon route meant that wasn’t going to be a good option after all.

We hopped on AllTrails to find some good hiking in the area and decided on Black Elk Peak – South Dakota’s highest point at over 7000 feet. The recommendation was to follow trail #9 up, follow to #3, and take #4 back.

Unfortunately, while the star led us to believe we were on the right trail to start off, we were actually one parking lot and one trailhead farther to the right. That meant we ended up doing the hike in reverse ( 4 > 3 > 9). We highly recommend following the recommended route!

The route we followed had a much quicker gain in elevation on the way up. I was still adjusting to the altitude and needed frequent breaks for the first portion. The map doesn’t show all the switchbacks! Essentially we climbed up one mountain at a steep pace, came down the other side with a series of switchbacks, THEN climbed the final part to Black Elk Peak all the way up the mountain. It was a gorgeous although hot day (mid-80s) and the views were spectacular.

Overall, I did quite well until we got to the final climb for the Harney Peak Lookout. Towards the top of the trail the sharp dropoff on the side started to make me feel a little woozy.

(I should probably admit here that I am terrified of heights. And roller coasters … and airplanes … )

We got to the last stairway and the open-grate stairs did me in. I tried, I really did! Instead, I sat and enjoyed the view from the base of the stairs (below) while Rob went up the rest of the way. Thankfully he took lots of pictures and videos!

(More information on Harney Peak Lookout in the Black Hills here.)

As we took trail #9 back towards Sylvan Lake, we commented multiple times on how much more of a gradual descent this was compared to the way we took. We wore ourselves out pre-peak with all the switchbacks, when if we had done those after the main climb they wouldn’t have felt so daunting.

My Garmin watch has a barometric altimeter sensor to track how many flights of stairs I “climb” per day. The reading came in at overall 87 flights up and 110 flights down with over 23,000 steps for the day! (Coming to about 9 miles for the day.)

I didn’t screenshot all of Rob’s counts for the trip, but when we compared at the end of each day our readings were overall pretty close.

After Our Hike

When we got back to our car, we opted for the short way to our lodging in Wyoming. I really wanted to drive Needles Highway, but it was 84 degrees and we just wanted a shower!

It was about a 3 hour drive from the Black Hills to our cabin in Wyoming. We were excited to see the mountains start to grow in the distance!

We spent the night at Z Bar Cabins in Buffalo, WY. It was a smaller cabin in a small town, but very clean. The shower was hot, the bed was soft, and the coffeemaker worked. And – best of all – Dominos delivered so we didn’t have to drive anywhere else that night 😉

A DAY IN The Black Hills: OUR TAKEAWAYS

Oh my goodness, we could have spent SO much more time in the Black Hills. We have friends who travel to the area every year to backpack and now I understand why. The Black Hills really does have something for everyone – from kid-friendly activities for families to easy walking trails to more extended hikes like Black Elk Peak. We especially loved Custer State Park.

The Rockerville Lodge owner told us we came at a good time of year. Mid-September means school is back in session and most of the visitors are the “newlyweds or nearly-deads,” as he so elegantly stated. Most of the families we saw had just babies and toddlers.

Next time we will also start our hiking earlier. We parked at 9:40 a.m. and got back to the car at 1:45 p.m. – so once again we were hiking in the hotter part of the day. Of course, we didn’t plan to hike so much that day, either!

Time on road: 4h 25m, mileage 230.6

*This post contains affiliate links; if you click one of them I may receive a small commission at no cost to you. This helps us fund more travel and hikes that we can share with you. For more information please read my disclaimer on affiliate links.

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