Black Hills and Badlands

It was still dark and nibbling cold when we left Colorado Tuesday morning, but we had a full day of driving ahead of us: north into Wyoming, and then east into South Dakota.IMG_7761

Our plans entailed a full day in Black Hills National Forest and a full day in Badlands National Park the day after just in time to arrive in Des Moines, Iowa for Halloween and Chris’ 36th birthday.  Although the 13,000+ acre Black Hills wilderness is filled with campgrounds, the Wrinkled Rock Climbing Trailhead is the only dispersed campground also open all year round.  Obviously, that was where we spent the night:20141028_173307_Android

And coincidentally, the campground was only a mere 2 miles away from Mount Rushmore! Since we had already visited Mount Rushmore a couple years back, we had not planned on spectating the notorious granite faces of the Four Presidents for this trip.  With just a few more hours of fleeting sunlight, we decided at the last minute to go for a run toward the national monument (which ended up saving us a $15 parking fee).

At the entrance we stumbled upon Fluffy, the mountain goat, and her kid:IMG_7767

Mount Rushmore!IMG_7770 IMG_0263IMG_7776

From our sunrise start in the outskirts of Denver, to the road trip into South Dakota, to the quick late-afternoon jog in the Black Hills to loosen up our leg muscles, and to the unexpected sojourn in Mount Rushmore, our travel day from Colorado to South Dakota turned out to be more eventful than anticipated.  Additionally, the following day enthralled us with even more unexpected amazement.

In the not-so-long-ago days when I worked in an office, I would half-jokingly give advice on efficiency and maximizing time.  “Wanna know how to make every weekend feel like a 3-day weekend?” I would ask. “Wake up every morning at 6am from Friday through Sunday.” I wasn’t kidding.  It was productivity at its max; not only was I able to complete necessary errands and obligations, I was also able to accomplish all the fun I didn’t want to miss out on.

Traveling can be the same.  If I wanted to relax, I wouldn’t need to travel.  I would simply sit remotely, perhaps curled up with a novel or cookbook.  While I’m traveling, I want to see as much of the world as I can within the short amount of time that I have.

So again, we were up by sunrise. We hit the Sylvan Lake Trailhead by early morning and hiked the highlight of Black Hills National Forest: Harney Peak, the tallest peak east of the Rockies sitting at 7,242 ft. above sea level.  It only took about 1 hour 15 minutes to hike 3.5 miles to the summit, which displayed epic views of granite cliffs and rock formations, and panoramic views of South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana. The historic watch tower at the summit was icing on the cake.

On our way up, the lighting on the granite formations was magical:IMG_7781 20141029_100456_Android

As we approached the watch tower, we climbed several sets of manmade steps and stairs:20141029_110018_AndroidIMG_7783 IMG_7784

And finally, we entered the watch tower. We spent quite a bit of time here, taking in the breathtaking views and feeling like a kid again while romping around the pretend fortress:20141029_110333_Android20141029_111923_Android IMG_7796 IMG_7798

After climbing a narrow set of stairs, we accessed the very top of the watch tower:IMG_7788 IMG_7790 20141029_110452_Android 20141029_110521_Android

Harney Peak is a generally popular site during the warmer summer months.  This early fall Wednesday morning bequeathed the hike and watch tower all to ourselves.  The return hike down was brief, and after lunch, we were on the road again heading eastward to Badlands.


Another epic boondocking site awaited us just outside of Badlands, thanks to my discovery of the dispersed camping area in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.  We parked and unhitched along the edge of a cliff overlooking the grand badlands.  Not another person was in site, and we ridiculously twirled around with our arms outstretched against the wind like Julie Andrews on the cover of The Sound of Music.  Okay, maybe we didn’t, but we sure felt like doing it.IMG_7804 IMG_7811

The view from our door:IMG_7806

It was only 4:00pm when we unhitched–there was ample time to drive the scenic highway 240 Badlands Loop and hike some of the shorter trails at sunset!  We quickly rushed into the park and oohed and aahed over the spectacular landscape.IMG_7823IMG_7824

Sunset was scheduled for sooner than expected–5:45pm.  We swiftly toured the Window and Door “trails”, both under a mile roundtrip.  The lighting and clouds could not have been more phenomenal for this glorious sunset.  It was even 60ºF!

Window Trail:IMG_783520141029_171554_Android 20141029_171627_Android

Door Trail:IMG_784020141029_173003_Android 20141029_173336_AndroidIMG_784520141029_173812_Android20141029_174202_Android20141029_174550_Android

Darkness quickly swept the valley and we again drove through the moonlit 240 SD back toward camp with our hearts filled with satisfaction from a full day’s adventure.  Not bad for a single day: we hiked Harney’s Peak in Black Hills, found an incredible boondocking site in South Dakota, drove the scenic highway 240 SD, and marveled at a colorful sunset within Badlands.

Sunrises and sunsets are memorable within landscapes such as this, so we woke up the next morning before sunrise to peek out from the curtains.  Soon enough the wall was flooded with light.  Gazing at views like below from our trailer’s warm bed is the very reason why we love boondocking.IMG_7848 IMG_7851 IMG_7861 20141030_072320_Android

After lunch we returned to Badlands via 240 SD again to hike the trails we missed out on the night before.  We stopped along 240 SD so I could snap a photo:IMG_7873

Our first hike was Notch Trail, which toured us through the formations via ladder.20141030_140403_Android20141030_134354_AndroidIMG_7882

And we finished off our Badlands experience with the longest trail within the park: the easy 12-mile long Castle Trail that guided us through the flat deserts, prairies, and formations.20141030_154135_Android IMG_789020141030_170741_AndroidIMG_7893


Due to a slightly late start, the sunlight quickly faded during the last mile of our hike. Our subtle shivers and vapors of warm breath indicated the rapidly decreasing temperature drop, and by the time we pulled out of the parking lot, darkness had taken over.  The foul wind and cold dragged out our journey to Sioux Falls, where we found a Walmart to camp for the night.  Des Moines, Iowa was our next destination, where we would spend the next several days taking a break from outdoor adventures.

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