Christian Kemp's USA travelogs

< Previous | List | Next > Morning sun at Mount Rushmore, and a descent into Jewel and Wind Caves

My day started with a shower at the State Park campground I was staying at, and then I set out to find someone to actually pay my campground fee to, seeing how I'd only arrived late in the evening.

After leaving the campground, I drove through the park, stopping several times. I saw wild turkey and wild donkeys; but overall the scenery wasn't all that remarkable. I soon reached Black Hills National Forest, and a few viewpoint that overlooked Mount Rushmore; including a tunnel that I was able to use as a natural frame on one of my Mount Rushmore pictures. Before to look, I reached the National Monument proper, and since my parking pass was valid for seven days I decided to stop there again and take some more shots at daylight.

Since the day was sunny and clear, there were now also people on top of Mount Rushmore, which on one hand provided some kind of scale, but on the other hand provides a distracting element on the photos. Before too long, I left; but still stopped a mile East to get a few more shots from a different perspective.

The next short stop was at Horse Thief Lake, and then drove on to the the Crazy Horse Memorial. It was still largely unfinished, and when I drove up to the entrance booth the entrance fee seemed outrageous - something like $10. I decided that I wasn't prepared to pay that kind of money, and turned around.

Instead, I headed back to Custer State Park. I stopped at Sylvan Lake, and then drove east on Highway 87, which is also called Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway or Needles Highway. The main attraction are, as the latter name indicates, its granite needles, as well as two tunnels that lead through them. Unfortunately, the needles are so close to the road, and sometimes have waste baskets just in front of them, so that it's not easy to get a clean shot of just the natural features.

I returned to Custer, where I briefly checked my email in an internet cafe, then stopped at a Pizza Hut for an all-you-can-eat pizza lunch; and then drove West on Highway 16 to Jewel Cave National Monument. I was able to join a tour that left soon after I arrived. Since I wasn't sure whether tripods were allowed, I only took my camera and wide-angle lens. At ISO 1600 and with an f/2.8 aperture, the caves turned out to be light enough to eliminate camera shake even though all shots were obviously hand-held; and at times the lights were strong enough that I was able to drop down to ISO 400. Considering the pace of the tour - especially since someone else had volunteered to bring up the rear and make sure nobody was trailing behind - I was glad to not have brought a tripod, since I wouldn't have had time to use it anyway.

Less than two hours later, I was in Wind Cave National Park, on another tour. This time I'd been smart enough to volunteer as the "last in line", so that I was at slightly more liberty to stop and take some pictures without holding other people up.

Being on a tour, I wasn't able to take as many photographs as I'd liked to, or to use a tripod; but at least the guide was interesting and pointed out a lot of things that I might not necessarily have seen. While he gave a lot of explanations about the different types of shapes and forms that these caves take, such information doesn't survive as well as the pictures.

I'd mapped out a route that would take me towards Colorado via Nebraska. I was a litte surprised when StreetAtlas sent me on unpaved streets again, because I had assumed that there would at least be a paved road. But the going was pretty smooth, and the road surface was well graded. I briefly stopped to photograph some badlands in Oglala National Grassland, but with sunlight fading fast I wanted to still put some distance under my wheels.

I rejoined paved roads just as the sun had set. My planned destination for the night was Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. I knew nothing about this litte-known unit, and as such was a little surprised when I arrived and there was no campground of any kind; neither in the national monument nor around it. Since I didn't know whether the surrounding land was public or privately owned, I decided not to do any roadside camping; but instead to head on towards the town of Scotts Bluff where DeLorme said there was a KOA campground. This way, I'd never see Agate Fossile Beds in daylight, but so be it; I also needed a place to sleep.

I drove to Scotts Bluff in the dark, listening to a radio station that played Pink Floyd; which wasn't bad. At Scotts Bluff, I checked into the KOA, unaware that it was situated just next to train tracks. Sometime during the night I was rudely awoken by a train horn and the lights of an oncoming train. Both seemed so close that I was almost worried that I had - without noticing - parked on railroad tracks. But with reality setting in as I awoke a little more, I realized that the train was passing just next to me.

Miles driven: 265mi (426km)

Campground Accommodation: KOA (Scottsbluff, NE): $18.04

South Dakota part written on July 15th 2008 in Luxembourg, finished July 16th while taking the 16 bus to Sennigerberg.