Our stay in Sturgis was mostly about taking care of the business of establishing our South Dakota residency, and not so much about fun stuff, although we managed to squeeze in a little bit of that, as well. Arriving early afternoon on a Sunday to a place where we had water and electric hookups also meant taking care of the business of laundry, some more extensive cooking, and getting all our papers ready. It was a gray day anyhow, perfect for those sorts of things.
We had timed this stay to coincide with the Sturgis DMV’s hours, and we arrived bright and early Monday morning at the Sturgis Community Center to find that the DMV people are only there on Thursdays contrary to the information on their website which clearly says they’re open every day but Tuesdays. Always ready with a backup plan, we figured we could motor down to the Rapid City DMV whose internet info showed them to be available every day but Friday. Not to be foiled again, we called and discovered that info was wrong as well, and they were really open every day but Monday.
We had the whole day to fill, and fortunately for us, the weather had cleared brilliantly. TBG found what turned out to be a great place to go mountain biking. Parking was available at a completely charming little BLM campground, which, had we known about it, would have been where we stayed instead.
We rode on part of the Centennial Trail, which will come up again later in this post.
I was a bit trepidatious about single-track biking since I hadn’t done it in awhile, but the trails here are not the rooty, rocky technical trails of the PNW.
I tried not to think about snakes, although I’m pretty sure I saw a few zip away through the grass as we whizzed by. It was a gorgeous day, warm but not too hot, with wide-open cerulean skies.
We rode until we were looking down on Fort Meade, then made our way back again. Had we been staying in the area longer, we surely would have explored more of this extensive trail system.
The following morning, we were up and ready early to make the drive in Rapid City and show up at the DMV as they opened. There were plenty of other people there, but it was nothing at all like the interminable lines from whence we came, and the employees were very friendly and quite familiar with full-time RVers which made it
all quite painless.
Mission accomplished, we grabbed a quick breakfast while we waited for the leather store to open so TBG could get a few supplies, and before we had to zip back to the campground for a phone meeting I had scheduled with our mail service to guide us through the paperwork to register the vehicles.
The weather was still very pleasant, and we had planned a short hike for the afternoon, but when we got back to the rig and I went to have a strawberry, I discovered one of them half-eaten. Momentarily puzzled as to why TBG would bite one and put it back (because, of course, he wouldn’t) I saw that the bottom of the little dish was full of MOUSE POOP. That changed our afternoon plans to an all-out mouse war, with me donning gloves and pulling out every drawer to wipe down and disinfect everything while TBG got out the traps and ran next door to the hardware store for some steel wool. We did, indeed, find more evidence of the little bastards who had chewed into an instant potato packet (don’t judge) and had had a fun time looking for more stuff to gnaw as evidenced by their little calling card pellets.
When we felt reasonably sure we had things under control we took a long walk through town. Once it was dark out, TBG did the old flashlight-under-the-rig trick to check for any unsealed openings. Finding none, we retired for the evening and were fortunately not awakened by any snapping mousetraps. We did find one in a basement trap the next morning, and TBG discovered that the end of the basement heater hose was wide open, so he devised a cover for that, and we have been mouse-free since.
The following morning brought cooler temps and misty rain, which made for a refreshing walk-run around the long, open campground loops. The rest of the day was spent on leatherworking (him) and a bit more laundry and cooking (me) in prep for the next leg of our journey.
Wind Cave National Park
We have visited South Dakota in the past, although not by RV, so we had seen Badlands N.P. and Mt. Rushmore, and since we were literally passing through Wind Cave, it was a no-brainer to plan some time there. Most of the National Parks were established long before crazy people like us started driving around in their own private big rigs, which means that many of them are not conducive to big-rig camping. This park, however, is one of the exceptions, although not at all limitless for our size. For an early Thursday afternoon, the campground was surprisingly full, but we were lucky and found a nice spot in the B loop.
This was dry camping, so set up was quick, and we were eager to start exploring.
By the time we’d changed shoes and walked to the campground sign, the weather was again gorgeous.
As the name suggests, this park’s main attraction is the extensive cave system, but we aren’t really cave people so we didn’t spend much time perusing the exhibits nor going on any of the (expensive!) cave tours. We are primarily hikers, and we started off with one of the three one-mile nature trails.
That evening, we took a walk on a second one-mile nature loop that connects directly to the campground.
Not only was this dry camping, but there was no cell service at all unless you climbed up somewhere. We got one teeny bar at the top of this trail, not that we were really all that concerned about being connected. It’s nice to be off the grid sometimes.
On our way back, we stumbled into the Elk Program at the amphitheatre where several folks had gathered to listen to a short presentation by the ranger about the resident elk herd and then to caravan out to find the elk and hear them bugle. We stayed for the talk, but declined the caravan, being quite familiar with elk from our own resident herd at Old-Home.
Our first longer hike the next day was to be on the Sanctuary Trail.
It was cool, but sunny with the promise to be nicely warm as the day wore on. Just getting to the trail, we saw a coyote running through a prairie dog town looking for breakfast, bluebirds, and bison.
We had hoped to connect to the Centennial Trail (the very same one on which we had biked!) but as things opened up, the trail became less defined. We did a little cross-country walking, but ultimately turned back although probably not far from what our original destination would have been.
Around that time, I realized I had lost my knife. Not that I needed it right then, but it was a good knife and I hated to lose it.
The day was indeed quite warm on our return, and we stopped here and there to enjoy the views. Then I turned to say something to TBG, and nearly stepped on this:
I made a sound something along the lines of “mmmmgggggtttthhhhhh!!!!!” and TBG said in a very authoritative voice, “Yes! That is a rattlesnake!” I nearly fell down trying to suppress a laugh, but falling right then would’ve been a singularly bad idea, and laughing at TBG just then wouldn’t have been a much better idea. We both stood very still while the snake unwound itself and began to move away, giving a few perfunctory rattles just to let us know who was boss.
To visually re-cap the proximity, I have doodle-enhanced a photo for you.
Once it was safely away, we looked around us and realized we had a long way to go back to the trail head and a lot of tall grass in which to get there. EFF. I took both of our walking sticks and used them to tap the ground in front of us as we made our way back. It didn’t take long before my forearms were on fire, and TBG assumed the duty.
We made it back to the car without further incident, and I had found my trusty knife!
Feeling as though we had been cheated out of our full hike, we stopped at the last of the one-mile nature loops on the way back.
This trail was wide open and clear of danger unless you count falling. (Pro tip: Always count falling.) The trail leads up to an old (closed) lookout tower.
On our way back to camp, we stopped into the Visitor Center again to ask a ranger which trails might be less overgrown and more visible as far as snakes were concerned. He directed us to two others, and we made plans for them in the next few days.
First up was Cold Brook Canyon.
We started a bit earlier knowing another warm day was in store and wanting to be ahead of the snakes. Things began nicely.
There were some prairie crossings, but the ranger was right and it was not hard to keep an eye on our feet. The early rock formations promised an even more interesting canyon ahead.
Smack-dab in the middle of the trail, too! He was enjoying his breakfast and not at all interested in moving his smorgasbord elsewhere, so we had to turn back. There was one other car at the parking area that had been there before us, and we wondered how long that same bison prevented the owners from returning to it.
With most of the day still ahead of us, we went to the second of the ranger’s recommended trails.
This trail follows an old road, making it easily navigable and wide-open as far as visibility. It winds through red-rock canyon walls
with cool features
and bird nests
terminating at the park’s border.
We had the whole way our to ourselves, passing several hikers coming in on our way out. Perfect!
That evening, we hiked back up the Rankin Ridge lookout trail for sunset pictures and cell reception.
The temps were mild and the summit was deserted. We heard coyotes calling in the distance, and far below, I watched a bison having an evening dust bath. For our last big hike, we had to drive about 45 minutes to the east side of the park along gravel NPS roads.
While this trail traverses prairie alternately with a series of rockier ridges, the ranger was again correct in that keeping an eye out for snakes was not difficult. As we made our way through the first of the larger prairie sections, we started to come up a rise, and TBG warned me to look up and stop. Coming toward us on the trail was a bull bison. Let me rephrase that. On the same trail, in the middle of open prairie, headed straight for us, was a male bison. Of course we stopped, but then we were unsure what to do exactly. All the caution signs simply said to give them a lot of space. Our bear training said to make noise, and our cougar training said to make yourselves look big, so I employed both those tricks, standing close to TBG, raising my stick above my head, and calling out in what I hoped was a steady voice, “Go on now!” The bull stopped, and I waved my arms, and it ran — fortunately lateral to us — covering about 50 yards in 0.0 seconds. But then it stopped, regarding us again.
You think rattlesnakes are scary? Screw that. I have been startled by many a critter in many a place, but I have to say this was the most frightened I have ever been. Facing a 2,000 lb. bull bison, realizing there is simply nothing between you and it and nowhere to go to get away should it decide you need a good stomping is what I can only describe as a Get-It-Right-With-God moment.
As we stood there, the whispered conversation went something like this:
“Don’t look at it!”
“Looking it in the face could be seen as a challenge.”
“What should we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“How will we know if it’s moving away or toward us if we can’t look at it?”
“OK, it is moving away.”
“No, it’s looking at us again!”
“Don’t look it in the face!”
“It’s going. It’s going.”
“Have you been watching the rest of the fields for more?”
Obviously, we survived that encounter, but we weren’t quite done with bison yet.
Prior to each prairie crossing, we would stop and I would scan the grasses with the binoculars making sure the way was clear. It was hard, though, to see every dip and swale, and if we would approach and unexpected low point, I would talk loudly. I have no idea if that’s the recommended bison-deterring technique, but I can attest that we didn’t run across any more, so it seems to be effective.
As we neared what we thought was the end of the trail, we stopped on a ridge so TBG could take a picture of a cute little cactus. Out of sight, over the edge of the ridge, I heard traffic. Wait, what? That was not traffic noise, that was the chuffy-growly noise of a bison. We didn’t wait around to find out if it was cresting the ridge on our trail or having itself a dust bath on the other side, we just turned and beat feet back out the way we had come. This is probably where I lost my knife for the second time and for good.
We finished the hike with no more impediments, but we kept a very watchful eye on the bison herd across the road. We took the road in the other direction on the return drive, stopping in Hot Springs at a roadside burger joint to reward our survival with peanut butter shakes.
Even though South Dakota lied to us twice and tried to kill us twice, we really did enjoy our time there. We would have stayed longer, but the weather was beginning to turn with some rain coming in, and we wanted to try to avoid driving in it if possible. We waved goodbye to all the critters, and pointed Essie southward.