Discover unlimited, natural magic less than an hour away
RAPID CITY, S.D. — These are hard days, mid-November of 2020, with Covid-19 bringing us sickness and death and fear of our neighbors who might infect us with the virus.
Those of us who can are urged to stay home, avoiding contact with others. We mask when leaving the house, we maintain “social distancing,” which means staying at least 6 feet from others. We see our family, friends, and co-workers only on computer screens.
It can be a grind but there is a way to make it more
Discover the magic that awaits you no more than an hour
Jump in your car and head onto the mighty prairies to the east or plunge into the remote areas of western South Dakota’s Black Hills. Take a camera if you are so inclined.
The healing power of nature, of being outdoors, is widely documented.
Virus or no virus, I am never happier than when wandering
some narrow path through the mountains, not sure where I’ll come out and not
really caring. (But I can make this promise: If you get yourself good and lost,
definitely will not be bored.)
I am happy to share these pictures of favored places,
especially for the benefit of those who might be new to the area, but also for
those who have lived here so long they have forgotten the beauty of this
The Custer State Park Elks Club meets on a sunny hillside, suspending club business long enough to pose for this photo.
This is Pactola Reservoir, undoubtedly (I contend) the most beautiful large lake in South Dakota. Pactola is filled by Rapid Creek, and the sprawling Rapid Creek watershed has the misfortune to contain the promise of gold. Exploration is under way and should there be a major strike, the toxic mess of mining could damage our pure water.
Every spring we escape winter (and this year’s virus lockdown) by traveling the prairies east and north of town to listen to meadowlarks sing. And sing they do. As you crunch slowly along a remote gravel road you can hear them, even with the windows rolled up. We encountered this abandoned ranch home on one such trip. Probably several generations of ranch folks were raised there, perhaps moving elsewhere when the well went dry. Or maybe they just built a nicer house.
As you escape the madding crowds of Rapid City and head into the Black Hills in search of sanitary solitude, you might like to see one of the most beautifully situated mountain villages ever. It is Silver City. Head west out of town on Rimrock Highway (Highway 44), take a right when you come to Highway 385, and drive a few miles to the well-marked Silver City turnoff. Keep going until you run out of road. This photo was taken from high on a hillside opposite the village.
Granddaughter Lily paddles her kayak on spectacular Jenny Gulch. The gulch is an extension of Pactola Reservoir, the biggest lake in the Black Hills and the source of water for Rapid City, Ellsworth Air Force Base and points east.
All teen girls are beautiful (I have raised enough of them to know) but there is always one who stands out. And here she is: The Belle of the Ball at Custer State Park.
It will take most of your hour to get there, but it’s worth the trip. Deerfield is for the anglers, sail boaters, paddlers of canoes and kayaks and other quiet pursuits. It’s a no-wake lake, and if you go roaring around in your power boat, you’re going to get fined. There are also several campgrounds if you want to extend your hour.
Canyon Lake is right in Rapid City and you can be there in eight minutes or less from any place in town. There are fishing docks, a paddle boat concession, and a nice spot to launch your own watercraft. A canoe outing at twilight is a nice way to end a hot summer day being cooped up in the house.
Badlands National Park is the ultimate other-worldly kind of place with its jagged, multi-colored formations. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright wrote that “the sky itself seemed only there to cleanse and light the vast harmonious building scheme.” The area is a tribute to the artistry of erosion as well as home to a variety of wildlife, including creatures ranging in size from prairie dogs to buffalo with the occasional rattlesnake thrown in just to keep everybody on their toes.
The sign marks a border of Pe’Sla, a 2,000-plus acre mountain meadow along Rochford Road, between the hamlet of Rochford and Deerfield Reservoir. Formerly known as Reynolds Prairie, Pe’Sla is a sacred area owned by the Lakota. We learned recently that a gold mining company has filed for a permit to use water in close proximity to the sacred site.
Braeburn Park near Canyon Lake is for dogs and is one of the most heavily used parks in the city. In the heat of summer, dogs explode into adjacent Rapid Creek for madcap canine games.
I was driving along the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop and decided to take a less-traveled path into a remote area. I topped a hill and the next thing I knew I was surrounded by dozens of buffalo. I thought how curious they were as the rubbed and bumped the car, making an odd scraping sound. Then I realized what they were doing. They were licking the car — they like the taste of accumulated road salt. It was scary being surrounded by animals taller than the car. I managed to creep through the mass of hair and beef, heaving a sigh of relief until I topped another hill and got caught in the middle of another bunch. Slurp slurp. You should see the tongue prints on the car.
Sylvan Lake is small but spectacularly beautiful, as the photo shows. Drive the Needles Highway northward out of Custer Park, continue on to the lake and thence to the town of Custer. No matter which route you take from Rapid City, you will pass through what many consider the most beautiful part of the Hills.
What better place to rest for the hardy souls who lived and toiled on the great prairie? Their spirits can still enjoy the brilliant stars in the pure black sky, the never-ending wind that kept them from tipping over before their time, and they can still see the eternal distance they saw in life.
Spearfish Canyon is on northern edge of the Black Hills, and its beauty serves as a balance to the Needles-Sylvan Lake splendor of the southern Black Hills. Suzanne and I were married at Spearfish Canyon Lodge and we like to visit Roughlock Falls at the time of our anniversary. The entrance is at the edge the town of Spearfish, and the exit is not terribly far from Lead.
The scenery possibilities in the Black Hills are endless, and here is one you won’t forget.
I’m not sure what I felt when I came upon this view in Custer State Park, but it was powerful. Perhaps it was a reminder why I love my West River South Dakota.