Exploring the Black Hills (Part 1)

It was Tuesday and we found ourselves back in South Dakota’s Black Hills after having passed through here only a few days ago on our way to Glacier National Park.  Our original intent had been to spend a week or so at Glacier but the fires and smoke drove us away.  The Black Hills seemed liked a good backup destination.

There is much to do and see in the Black Hills making it difficult to decide what to do first.  So, we made a prioritized list of what we wanted to see and do and set out to explore.  It was raining pretty hard so we shuffled our list a bit and focused on dryer activities for a start.

Our Homestake Mine Tour Guide

Our first stop was at the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center in Lead (pronounced “leed”), South Dakota.  There, we got to see the open pit of the Homestake Mine, which used to be the largest and deepest gold mine in North America, yielding over 40 million troy ounces of gold before it closed in 2002.  Now, it’s a dark matter research center with the primary lab located thousands of feet under ground.  We took a one hour tour which included an overview of the open pit and a tour of one of the wheelhouse buildings.  Very interesting and well worth the senior rate of $6.75.

Next up was a visit to Hot Springs, South Dakota which is the home of The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs.   This is an active dig site, which contains the largest concentration of mammoth remains in the world.  Here they’ve identified the remains of 61 mammoths, so far.  The theory is that this location used to be a pond with steep sides and the mammoths fell in but couldn’t get out.  Over the years the pond solidified and the surrounding area eroded away leaving a hill of mammoth bones.  These bones were discovered when a developer decided to bulldoze the hill for a new subdivision.

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The Greeter at Mammoth Site

The tour begins with a movie and then you get to go inside the building housing the dig.  Here there are mammoth skeletons everywhere along with the bones of other contemporary creatures including camels, llamas, and short-faced bears which were bigger than any modern bear.  Only three of the 61 mammoths were wooly mammoths.  The other 58 were Columbian mammoths which are the wooly mammoth’s much larger cousin.  I think this was the first time I’ve heard of non-wooly mammoths!

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One of the 61 Mammoth Skeletons

Next up was another drive through Custer State Park.  We visited here a week ago and our sticker was still good for another visit.  We were hoping to see more wildlife, especially buffalo, and we were not disappointed.  We turned into the park and were immediately greeted by Mona’s favorite: prairie dogs.  She loves just sitting and watching these little guys as they watch us.  Every now and then a prairie dog would run to another’s burrow and make a big chirp before diving in.  I don’t know what they’re doing but it’s fun to watch!

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One of Mona’s Favorites

Custer State Park has lots and lots of wildlife and many of the animals seem intent on you seeing them. Some of them, like the wild burros, even walk up to your car hoping for a treat…or maybe a ride.

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Not sure what he wants!

Custer also has white-tail deer, mule deer, mountain lions, mountain goats and pronghorn like the one pictured below.  He was standing beside the road seemingly waiting for us to drive near to get a picture.

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Pronghorn!

But what we wanted to see most in Custer were the buffalo.  There are over 1300 of them in this park and we had a close encounter with about 500 of them only a week before.  That wasn’t enough and we wanted to see more this evening.  Again, we were in luck as we saw a herd of a couple of hundred running diagonally across the hills ahead of us.  We sped up to intercept and all of a sudden we were in their midst!  Hundreds of buffalo running past us, grunting and bellowing as they ran!

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Buffalo Running Past Us!

We spent a couple of hours in the park watching the buffalo run.  These animals weigh up to 2000 pounds yet they can run almost 30 miles an hour and you certainly don’t want to try to out run one.  We were very content to pop up through our sun roof to snap our pictures, safe and secure.

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For some reason I feel a kinship with this fellow!

Custer State Park is easily one of our favorite parks in the United States.  The entry fee is $15 per vehicle and is good for seven days.  Unfortunately, the National Park Pass doesn’t work here but I think you get your money’s worth in wildlife viewings alone.  Not to mention the fee includes traveling the Needle Highway and the Iron Mountain Road!

This post was originally intended to cover all of what we experienced in the Black Hills but there’s too much for just one post.  Stay tuned for more!

 

 

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