South Dakota - Black Hills and Spearfish

26th June - 1st July 2008

The Black Hills of South Dakota were stunningly beautiful and we decided to stay put in our campground just outside the park and devote a few days to exploring the wildlife and wilderness.    Reaching the trailheads in Harvey meant negotiating the sometimes steep, often winding and occasionally narrow park roads but Harvey took all in his stride.....    

....the hairpin bends.......

......the corkscrew bends.....

.....the narrow tunnels......

.....and even being re-surfaced around!

The first trail we'd selected left from the beautiful Sylvan Lake in the north of the park, which we'd already visited the previous day.    The trail was named Sunday Gulch and we made our way to the trailhead uncertain of just what exactly a gulch was.    We soon found out as we scrambled down a narrow rocky ravine, created by erosion from the stream through which we paddled.    We held on tight to handrails to avoid sliding right down the gulch on our backsides!    Luckily after the first half mile or so, the trail became a normal, trail through beautiful forestry with stunning gulch views.


Learning about gulches the hard way!

On our return to Harvey, parked in a roadside parking lay-by we were startled to see a road construction crew alongside, laying a new road surface.    Fortunately they'd left Harvey an escape route but there may be a part of Custer park with a permanent Harvey-shaped road feature!

Custer Park is famous for its wildlife and we'd often come across fierce-looking buffalo loitering along the edge of the road.   It was hard to beat our first ten minutes in the park when we'd not only found a flock of Bighorn Sheep resting near the road but also encountered our first "buffalo jam", traffic congestion caused by eager tourists photographing grazing buffalo.   These were to become a regular driving hazard from this point on.

Of course the buffalo were not only a tourist attraction, they were also a regular menu item and we decided to give it a try, especially after learning it apparently contained far less artery clogging fat than regular beef, tasty too!

Buffalo on the hoof.................................................................and on the plate!

Since childhood, when he'd read borrowed copies of "Field and Stream" magazine and wondered over pictures of fly-fishing in the great American wilderness, Phil had dreamt of trying it out for himself.    Armed with a new fly-fishing rod, a selection of flies and his South Dakota fishing licence, we set off on the three mile long  Grace Coolidge Walk-In Fishing Trail in the park.    

The trail itself was a beautiful mix of woodland, prairie and stream and the walk was well-worth doing without even without wanting to fish.    We spotted a selection of wildlife, including a large family of wild turkey and two snakes which were, of course, encountered by the snake-o-phobe's size 6 hiking boots, leading to a degree of panic!   Luckily the snakes were small and non-venemous!

Heading into the wilds in search of trout

After several hours of trying all types of fishing spots in ponds and the prairie and tree lined streams along the trail, Phil had enough success to reach his legal daily creel limit and we had trout supper for several nights.     

We made the most of the three-day fishing permit by spending another couple of days exploring other fishing spots in the park but always seemed to return to the lovely Grace Coolidge Trail, even moving Harvey to a nearer campsite for the third day's fishing.   That evening we tried our luck with lake fishing too but only managed to pull a tiny 1" crayfish out of the lake, which obviously took a shine to our lure!


At the end of a long day of watching the fisherman hard at work, Christine was keen to take a walk which didn't involve carrying a fishing rod and to explore some of the prairie landscape.    The somewhat weary fisherman agreed but used all means in his power to persuade her to change her mind about the hike, reading aloud all the warning notices at the trail head warning of rattle-snakes, the dangers of sudden storms and the perils of approaching grazing buffalo.    

Hiking the prairie trail.

Undeterred by these attempts the hikers continued along the prairie trail and Phil even began to talk of how glad he was he'd decided to walk the trail, which was surrounded by an amazing selection of wild flowers.   We followed posts through the prairie marking the route when suddenly he stopped...."You know those notices about not approaching the buffalo?  Well, what do we do if we encounter a herd  grazing all over the marked trail?"   It turned out that, with no obvious peril-free route around the huge beasts, turning back was the safest option.    It may have been a wimpy option but those beasts are really, really big and we just weren't sure how many more might be lurking just over the brow of the hill!!   At least we'd had a taster of prairie landscape.

Uh-Oh!   Now what.....

Time to turn back!

We were sad to leave the beauty of the Black Hills and Custer State Park but America is a big country and we had a lot of it left to see, so we dragged ourselves away.  

We drove through the infamous town of Deadwood before arriving in another area of natural beauty, Spearfish Canyon.    After a lunch stop in the pretty canyon, we arrived in the town of Spearfish.     We wanted to visit their historic fish hatchery but noticed that the town had kindly set up a lovely campground right in the park, complete with electricity and wi-fi internet, so we decided to check in, giving ourselves a little longer to explore the town.

Why didn't I catch one that big yet?

Those trout sure travelled in style!

We learned that the D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery had been established in 1896 to introduce trout to the Black Hills and for fish management in Yellowstone Park.    Once of a suitable size for release into the wild the young fish were transported first by specially designed mule-panniers and later by modified rail cars to their release locations.     An underwater viewing area gave us a chance to see our prey up close and personal.   

The town park was beautiful and we enjoyed riding the bike trails and watching local teenagers riding large inner tubes down the river rapids in the park.   They were certainly hardy youngsters as when we ventured just our toes into the crystal clear waters, we quickly left, squealing at the cold!

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