Saturday, October 31, 2015

Mt. Coolidge and Another Tunnel!

(Continuing the recap of my late August/early September South Dakota trip.....)

After driving Custer State Park's Wildlife Loop, my parents and I headed towards the town of Custer to find some lunch.  But en route, a sign pointing towards Mt. Coolidge caught my eye. 

Mt. Coolidge Firetower

I'd never been to the top of this mountain (or if I had I didn't remember).  My dad, who was doing an excellent job as tour guide, offered to drive up there and check it out.  Of course my answer was a resounding yes.

View from the base

A short, winding forest service road took us to the base of Mt. Coolidge's fire tower, perched atop this 6,023 foot peak.

A nice observation deck

The firetower was a sturdy rock building constructed of local limestone.  From the multitude of nearby antennas and radio towers, it appeared this lookout was still very much in use. 

Looking down on the road

Steps led to a small viewing platform.  My parents and I climbed the short distance and gasped at the incredible panoramic views of the Black Hills.

Fantastic Black Hills panorama

Oh yeah, it was a clear day and we could see for many miles.  The "hills," green from an above-average summer of moisture, looked mighty fine from our lofty perch.

Loved the stonework

I admired the sturdy lookout tower.  Later research confirmed it had been built in the 1930's by the Civilian Conservation Corp.  I also learned this fire tower is still very much in use during the summer months.

A tunnel!

After lunch at a great hamburger place in Custer, dad drove home via the Iron Mountain Road, connecting Custer State Park to Mount Rushmore.  Another iconic Black Hills byway, this road featured tight turns, cute wooden bridges (nicknamed "pigtail bridges"), and strategically placed tunnels.  Ooh!  More tunnels!  Who doesn't love tunnels?

Pigtail bridge leads to this tunnel

This road was deliberately designed to be driven slowly.  And with such great scenery around every turn, who wouldn't want to take their time?  Some roads wound around such tight turns that you could see the road underneath as you crossed over.  One pigtail bridge led travelers right into a rocky tunnel.

Mt Rushmore framed in the tunnel entrance

But this was no ordinary tunnel.  Oh no - this one was special.  As you emerged from the opposite end, drivers were treated to a front-row view of Mt. Rushmore framed in the opening.  How many tunnels can claim this?

And of course I had to get a video.  Enjoy this trip through a Black Hills tunnel, South Dakota style!

(Ok, after this I promise no more tunnels.  Well.....until next year.)

Sharing with:  Through My Lens and Our World Tuesday.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Where the Buffalo Roam

(Continuing the recap of my late August/early September South Dakota trip.....)

Wait a minute.....those aren't buffalo!

Turkey Trio

Eeep...caught in the act!  I captured this turkey trio drinking from my parent's birdbath one morning.  Between the visiting deer, rabbits, and flocks of wild turkeys, their yard became quite the "Wild Kingdom."

Custer State Park entrance

In the previous post, I'd mentioned that when visiting the Black Hills of South Dakota, I always make at least one trip to Custer State Park.  Not only offering spectacular scenery, this park also boasts plentiful wildlife, including 1,500 free roaming bison.

This big guy was right beside our truck!

A couple of years ago, I'd stumbled across a small herd of the shaggy beasts.  Unprepared for photography, I managed to get off only two mediocre shots.  But this trip, determined to redeem my photo fail, I headed back in search of buffalo.  My mom and dad were more than happy for an excuse to revisit.

Buffalo everywhere!

The planets aligned big time.  Barely past the park entrance, I spotted my first buffalo.  A huge, shaggy male was walking right beside the main road.  I leaned out the window and fired away with my camera.....that is, until the big guy decided to come up right alongside our truck!  Let me tell you, those bison are way bigger in real life.  I hastily ducked inside and let him pass.

Big guys resting

Not a quarter mile up the road, we hit the buffalo jackpot.  The forest opened up into a large meadow, covered with brown, shaggy bodies.  My dad edged the truck closer and I began taking copious photos out the window (for safety's sake, don't ever get out of your car to photograph these big beasts).

Mama and her calf

The majority of the herd were either lying down or grazing.  A steady stream of vehicles with camera-toting tourists hanging out of windows didn't faze them in the least.

Buffalo yoga

I switched to my zoom lens and began capturing dozens of buffalo, up close and personal.

Rolling in the dirt

This big guy was taking a dust bath.

Checking out his neighbor

My dad wanted to check out the State Game Lodge, so we backtracked a short distance.  Whatever bison weren't in that first field were all hanging out around the lodge and Peter Norbeck Visitor Center.

Buffalo jam

It was such a large herd, the beasts created traffic jams whenever they crossed the road.  These guys have the right-of-way, so when this happens there's not much you can do but sit tight and wait for them to pass.

This herd took over the cabin area

The buffalo were camped out beside a nearby parking lot and restroom.  Some unsuspecting tourists got a big surprise as they walked toward the facilities.  I think they ended up holding it!

Just chillin'

An large field near some rental cabins was taken over by the huge herd.  I'm not sure what the cabin's guests ended up doing.  They might've been stuck inside all day.

Of course I tried to get some video footage of the big guys in action.  Sadly, they weren't all that active (well, except for an attempted romantic encounter towards the end of this clip).


After seeing our fill of buffalo (enough to last until next year!) my dad continued our drive down the park's "Wildlife Loop."  An appropriately named road, it wasn't long until we spotted a herd of antelope.

Checking out the weird lady with a camera

These guys didn't seem to mind having their pictures taken by a crazy lady with a huge lens.

Beggin' Burros

Then we came upon Custer State Park's famous "begging burros."  These wild donkeys are descendants from a herd that once hauled visitors to the top of Harney Park.  After the rides were discontinued (many years ago) the burros were released into the park.

This truck got mobbed!

Through the years tourists stopped to photograph these friendly donkeys.  People began feeding the beasts, and over time it became a park tradition.  The wild donkeys are nicknamed "begging burros" because they approach vehicles expecting food.  As you can see, the burros are quite aggressive, sticking their heads into open car windows.

Can't resist this cutie

I have fond childhood memories of driving through Custer State Park, and feeding the donkeys out the back window of my parent's station wagon.

Friendly burros

However, today my parents and I were unprepared for burro feeding, and had nothing to offer.  Once the donkeys realized this, they moseyed on to greener pastures. 

Prairie dog

Not only were the burros hungry, after a morning of wildlife sighting my parents and I were ready for a little lunch too.  So we headed towards the town of Custer to check out their newest burger joint.  En route, I made my dad stop by a prairie dog town and captured a couple more shots of these cute little rodents.

The end

A successful day of wildlife sighting in Custer State Park!

(For more information about the park, here's a link to the 2015 Custer State Park Newsletter.)

Sharing with:  Saturday's Critters

Monday, October 26, 2015

Hike, Lake, and Tunnel

South Dakota's Custer State Park is hands-down the best state park in the US.  Easily on par with most National Parks (and better than some IMHO) it's got sparkling mountain lakes, dramatic granite pinnacles, loads of wildlife, and winding scenic byways.

Granite spires near Sylvan Lake

When I'm back visiting family there's one place in the Black Hills I always go - Sylvan Lake and the Needles Highway, both in the heart of Custer State Park.

Cute cabin near Sylvan Lake

Usually my parents and I hike the loop trail around picturesque Sylvan Lake.  But this day I wanted to try something new - the trail to Sunday Gulch.

Entering Sunday Gulch

Snaking through a scenic canyon just below Sylvan Lake's dam, this trail claims great views of the park and unusual granite formations to explore.  Although I'd heard lots about it, it was one hike I'd yet to complete.

Last of the summer wildflowers

After parking near the Sylvan Lake Lodge, my parents and I traveled down a wide, gravel road past some of the cute guest cabins.  A few of these cabins had outstanding views of many tall granite spires jutting up from the Black Hills.

A steep downclimb into Sunday Gulch

Behind Sylvan Lake's dam, the Sunday Gulch trail nosedived into the canyon.  The "trail" consisted of a path worn into huge granite boulders.  Metal handrails provided something to cling onto while navigating the steep rocks.  Footing was dicey in many places.  Although my parents keep active and are in great shape for their ages, I started to worry that this trail might be too difficult for them.

Light filtering through the trees

My parents were good sports and didn't complain.  But I could tell my mom was a little bit unsure.  She didn't look like she was having any fun.

Sunny yellow flower

Then we met another woman climbing up the opposite direction.  She warned us that further below, the trail got even worse.  The path was steeper, with larger gaps between steps, and the rock very slippery.  After hearing her dire story, I decided not to risk it and suggested to my folks that we turn around and hike something else instead.

Heading behind Sylvan Lake dam

I was happy when both my mom and dad agreed to go elsewhere.  We gingerly climbed back out the canyon without incident.  Luckily, there's another wonderful hike just around the corner - the path around beautiful Sylvan Lake.


After climbing up a stone staircase behind the dam that led through a crack in the granite, we arrived at Sylvan Lake's grassy shores.

My parents admire Sylvan Lake

The crown jewel of Custer State Park, this gorgeous lake is surrounded by impressive granite formations and green Ponderosa pine forests.

Granite reflections

The water's surface was so still, it provided perfect reflections of adjacent granite formations.

Still some lakeshore wildflowers

I lagged behind my parents, trying to capture these reflections.  And a bit of late blooming wildflowers added color to the shoreline.

Looking back towards the dam

Oh yeah, you just can't take too many photos of this lake!

My mom enjoying the scenery

My parents and I hiked the mile-long loop that circled the lake.  Although I hike this trail every year, it never gets old.

I love photographing this lake!

After finishing our trip around Sylvan Lake, there was one more place I wanted to see.  I asked my dad to take a drive up the Needles Highway.

Granite close-up

Snaking through Custer State park, this byway passes through a vast swath of tall granite spires known as "the Needles."

The Needles Highway

This narrow, winding road was purposely designed to be driven slowly, allowing visitors to fully appreciate the amazing scenery.

Funny granite pillars

The highlight of any trip is a drive through the tunnels blasted into the granite.  The most famous one is called the "Needles Eye." 

"Needles Eye" tunnel

A super-narrow one lane path through the rock, vehicles must first stop and honk to warn traffic on the opposite end.  Vehicles take turns cueing through this tunnel.  There is a parking area on one side, and many people get out of their cars for a closer view.  The main entertainment is watching some of the larger trucks and campers inch their way to the other side.  If you're lucky and happen to catch it, tour buses often squeeze through - very, very slowly!

I love driving through tunnels, and my dad was happy to oblige with a couple of trips through the Needles Eye.  And so all of you can experience it too, here's a short video.

A fun day visiting some of my favorite spots in "the Hills."  But tune in to my next post and I'll share pics of some of the critters we found in Custer State Park.

Sharing with:  Through My Lens and Our World Tuesday

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Back from Vacation

Hey everybody, I'm back!

I had a great week exploring three National Parks across the Southwestern US - Zion, Grand Canyon (North Rim), and Bryce Canyon.  The weather wasn't very cooperative (it rained every day) but I still had a fabulous time.

The fantastic hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park

Now I have LOTS of catching up to do.  Not only do I have blogging friends to visit, but I also need to finish my early September South Dakota trip (a few more cool posts to come - don't miss 'em!) and recap my mid-September Lassen National Park journey.

I plan on burning some midnight oil in the next week, so keep checking back - more good stuff coming soon!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Spearfish Canyon

After two days of driving, I'd made it to the Black Hills of South Dakota and my parent's house.  Let the fun begin!

Tall limestone cliffs

There's so many beautiful places to see in the Black Hills that for each of my yearly visits, I try and pick different destinations.  This time, Spearfish Canyon rose to the top of the list.  A scenic 22-mile drive between the towns of Spearfish and Lead, it's one of my favorite roads in the Hills.

Churning water

This scenic byway winds through a canyon lined by thousand foot high limestone palisades.  Lovely Spearfish Creek lines the canyon floor, while lush trees cover its walls.  Two waterfalls along this route provide worthwhile stops.  Spearfish Canyon is especially popular in late September, when changing leaves add a splash of color to the already gorgeous scenery.

Roughlock Falls

First up on my "must see" list was Roughlock Falls.  A lovely, tiered cascade, it's the most visited waterfall in the Black Hills.  Many years had passed since I'd laid eyes on this beauty, so I convinced my parents to drive me there (it was an easy sell!)

My parent's "senior" picture

Sadly, by the time we'd arrived, the mid-afternoon sun wasn't conducive to photography.  I tried a couple shots with my DLSR, but all my images were backlit and blown out.  (Ironically, the only decent shot I got was with my cell phone!)  But I did get a nice pic of my folks and that's better than any waterfall.  My mom joked it was their "senior picture."

A touch of fall colors

The canyon walls surrounding Roughlock Falls were especially scenic.  Tall pillars of limestone rose steeply from the creek.  I even captured a tiny bit of yellow - the autumn colors were just getting started.

Burbling brook

A mile or so from Roughlock Falls was the lovely Latchstring Restaurant.  A local favorite for many years, this cute inn was located in an idyllic spot.  Surrounded by more tall cliffs and green trees, it's the perfect place to enjoy a special dinner.  Although we didn't stop for a bite, my folks and I did stroll around the grounds, taking in all the spectacular scenery.

Latchstring Restaurant

Then we piled back into my mom's car for a leisurely drive down the rest of the highway.   The road itself was designed to be driven slowly to take in all the magnificent scenery.  And that's exactly what we did.

Bridal Veil Falls

I spied another waterfall tumbling down a nearby cliff and asked my dad to pull over. 

A closer look at the falls

It was Bridal Veil Falls, a tall, wispy cascade.  Although I didn't have my tripod, I braced my camera on a nearby handrail, and managed to get a couple of decent captures.

Old Homestake Mining Co. power plant

One hundred years ago, gold and silver mining were huge industries in the Black Hills.  The Homestake Mine, a large underground gold mine, extracted huge amounts of metal from the earth.  Sadly, the mine is now closed, but many buildings still remain.  We stopped by an old hydroelectric plant, a remnant of this bygone era.

Lovely drive home!

A lovely, sunny day - perfect for getting out and revisiting an old favorite place from my childhood.

Note to my readers:  Tomorrow I'm off on one final adventure for the year.  That means I'll be away from blogland for several days.  But that also means I'll be bringing back lots of photos to share with you all.  Stay tuned!