Tuesday, August 19, 2014

North County Redux: Black Hills and more

July 25 2014

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

OK, a little overly dramatic there and I shouldn't be playing so free and loose with Dicken's iconic words. So let's tone it down a little closer to reality: It was a really good day today until towards the end, then it got very long, very very long.
Up and on the move at dawn once again, for two reasons, OK, three. OK four. I’m hoping to beat the heat that has settled on the north for the past several days, I’m hoping to beat the crowds. As usual, I’m up and awake as soon as the sky starts to lighten. And finally, it's a glorious morning and one shouldn't waste those, even if everyone else still seems to be asleep.

At Spearfish I’m poised on the northern edge of the Black Hills so that’s where I head without much of a plan.

My first stop is Deadwood. Typical of mountain towns, Deadwood is long and narrow, sharing the limited space between the surrounding peaks with Whitewood Creek. There’s a whole lot going on in Deadwood, or there would be if people were up this early. Lots of stores and shops and eateries, the usual touristy type mix, along with nice walking paths and pocket parks along the creek.

Oh, and there are loads of motels with little tiny parking lots jammed in wherever there's a leftover spot. (One major chain hotel has an additional parking lot over on the other side of a stream with a footbridge to get back to their front door without having to take to the shoulder of the road.) All of these parking lots look a bit untidy, being odd shapes and jammed full of cars and trucks with motorcycles, hundreds of motorcycles (The Sturges Bike Rally doesn't even  officially start for over a week yet!) slipped into any leftover space. As you may have surmised, most of these establishments had the no vacancy signs lit.

As I passed all this I had visions of all those people waking up, stretching, then getting up and heading for the handiest restaurant for some breakfast. Which was no big deal except that my vision also included the whole mass of them synchronously swallowing that last forkfull, paying the bill then clamoring into or onto whichever vehicle they came in (And maybe for a few lucky singles, sitting with the catch of the day in a vehicle they didn’t come in!) and, still synchronously, roaring out onto the limited byways of the Black Hills, the same byways I was enjoying pretty much all to myself at the moment!

But I was early enough that I needn’t have worried. It was a very pleasant morning tooling around the roads, seeing what was there and stopping when I had the urge.

One of those stops was at the  Deer Creek Trailhead on CR T229, otherwise known as Silver City Rd., just off US385. (There is a Silver City on up the road a ways, but it's across the creek and literally only 2 blocks big/small/miniscule!) This trailhead is at mile 62 of the 105 mile Centennial Trail that winds north/south through the Black Hills.

A glimpse of the Pactola Reservoir from the Deerfield Lake Trail, no sign of any Deerfield Lake though.
Now 105 miles of trail is - well - a lot of trail! But going about a third of a mile south on the big trail then making a sharp right turn put me on the the Deerfield Lake Trail. Thirteen miles later, after passing such places as Goose Pasture Draw, Spaw Gulch, and Canon City (Which appears to be even less of a city than Silver City with absolutely no sign of habitation, present or past.) this trail ends at the Mickelson Trail with no sign of a Deerfield Lake to be seen anywhere along the way. Now a 26 mile round trip hike is pretty ambitious and I have to admit that after hiking up to Silver City I turned around and made it more like a 5 mile round trip hike before skipping ahead by driving up Jenny Gulch Rd. to FR142, which had some pretty hairy spots I might add, taking that to where it dead-ends, then ambling another half mile up Rapid Creek to the purported location of the elusive Canon City.

This wasn't a 'tourism brochure' type of hike with spectacular views and monumental points of interest, but it was a great, solitary hike through pretty mountains and quiet woods and that was just fine by me.

By the time I got back to the main road there was more wheeled activity, but not as much as I expected, as I continued south on US385 towards the obligatory stop at Mt. Rushmore. I was here once over 40 years ago and I’m pretty sure a lot of the infrastructure now plopped down at the foot of the monument, infrastructure packed with various ways to transfer some of that money in your pocket to - well, out of your pocket, wasn’t there back then. But now I can say, been there, done that; twice.
I liked this slightly oblique shot of the monument taken from a very small pullout along SR244 at a plaque honoring the sculptor better than the face-on shot you get from the monument visitor center. Too bad I didn't know that before paying $11 to park at the monument for 30 minutes!
Yes, no matter which way you twist it, it's kind of a cliche,

but taking these photos is also kind of obligatory when you're in the area.

The next bit of my trip was also sort of per-ordained. You see there's a family legend about South Dakota's SR16A.

Somewhere back in 1967 or so, we took a family trip that included the Black Hills. (One of those 2 week, one day here one day there, kind of whirl-wind trips forced by limited vacation time.) Our transportation was some heavy steel boat of a 4-door car pulling a Holly Travel Trailer, which was only 17 feet or so long but no lightweight in itself.

Coming north out of Cheyenne as we were I'm sure the maps of the day made it look like SR16A was a good way to get through the Hills to a campground that would stage us close to Mt. Rushmore for our scheduled morning visit the next day. But I'm pretty sure that if the internet and Google Maps had been available back then, that if Dad had had any way of knowing the strange design of this particular little stretch of road, that there's no way he would have tackled it towing a trailer!

You see, unlike most roads which are designed to get from here to there in the most economical fashion possible, 16A was designed to be just the opposite. For instance, the road includes several one-lane tunnels designed, if you're traveling south to north, to frame increasingly closer views of Mount Rushmore as you drive through the tunnel. (But be careful! One in particular has a turn to the left just as you exit so don't get caught up in the view and go driving off the side of the mountain!) And the road features a number of 'pigtails'. These are nifty little features where you pass under a wooden trestle, make a very sharp 270 degree climbing turn that any go-cart track would be proud of, and cross back over the same trestle, in one case with the trestle ending in the mountainside at one of those one-lane tunnels. And just in case that wasn't enough, instead of going around Iron Mountain like any other self-respecting road would do, this one switchbacks all the way to the very top of the mountain where you can pull off at the Norbeck Memorial Overlook and contemplate the fact that now you have to get back down off the other side.

 Even for us kids, who usually didn't know any better, this was one white-knuckle ride!!

In the Sprinter, going southbound against the majority of the building traffic, it wasn't all peaches and cream, for instance I wasn't tempted, not even once, to try grabbing some one-handed photos out the windshield, and the growing traffic imparted a sense of urgency (An affliction I really should do something about.) that precluded using the available pull-outs, but it was kind of fun revisiting our own personal family legend. And, obviously, just like we did back in 1967, I made it out the other end.

With all the hoopla going on just to the north, I think the Wind Cave National Park south of the Black Hills must feel like a forgotten stepchild.

The black of the Black Hills, the trees, are starting to fad off here which opens up the range land and, right on cue, I had to stop in the middle of the road to let a small herd of Bison finish ambling their way across. All that was left by the time I got there were a couple of youngsters that hadn't quite kept up with mom and the usual stragglers, like reluctant teenagers trying not to look like they’re tagging along, but not wanting to get left too far behind none-the-less. The youngsters got distracted by the view and some itches that needed to be scratched right about the time they were in the middle of the road and it took a little scolding from mom to remind them to pay attention.

As I continued my way south I stopped off at the Ft. Laramie National Historical Site in Wyoming. Like Bent’s Fort near La Junta Colorado which I visited on my US50 Phase One trip, this was built more as a trading post but necessity required some fort-like features. It was OK, but very much like Bent's Fort and, in my opinion, not quite as well done.

Shortly after that stop, as I was approaching Guernsey on US26 I saw a large Union Pacific rail yard and service facility and, of course, wanted to get a few photos. There wasn’t any place safe to stop right along there, but just up the road there was a perfectly placed, so I thought, rest area.

Well it wasn’t quite so perfect in terms of photographing the rail yard and facilities since much of the miles long facility was out of sight down in a cut alongside the North Platte River,

but the tiny little rest area was a bit of a gem with interpretive plaques and big, two-sided brick picnic table shelters.

Of course when you think about it, the solid brick walls sheltering the tables from the north and west should give you a hint of the kinds of winds they get out here, and frequently enough to warrant the expense. Fortunately today was not one of those windy days; I had enough of that back up in North Dakota!

Here's where things went a little cattywampus. My plan for the day was to nest somewhere around Cheyenne.

Well that didn't work out too well! You see it just happened that today was right smack dab in the  middle of Frontier Days. I suppose that was somewhat poetic being that back in '67 the reason our family was in Cheyenne before heading on up to the Black Hills was to go to a real live rodeo during Frontier Days, but it didn't feel very poetic after all the miles I'd already covered.

Hours and hours later, after fighting the constant slowdowns and traffic jams that are Interstate 25 along the Colorado frontrange on a Friday with the overhead traffic signs all warning about being prepared to stop because of heavy weekend traffic, I finally ended up in a KOA just south of Colorado Springs.

This is a big campground and it seems not many are interested in the water/electric only sites down near the concrete-rubble lined Fountain Creek that runs along the back side so it was no problem getting a site down there. Clearly this area of the campground is at risk of flooding and you have to climb steps up the bank to the safely perched bath-house, but it's not flooding now and the site works for me. Especially after such an unexpectedly long day.

I25 somewhere north of Cheyenne. I didn't know it when I took the photo, but this was the last time I would see anything resembling empty road for the next 180 miles. Here I'm doing about 62 in a 75 zone. It wasn't long after this that my best speed was no more than about 45 due to heavy traffic and, before stopping for the night in Colorado Springs, I stopped countless times in the traffic jam that is the Colorado frontrange on a Friday evening!

I suppose I could have tried finding a campsite farther back up the road. At first I think it was shock. Once I realized there was no room at the inn in Cheyenne I glanced over at my map and figured maybe I'd try once I got south of Ft. Collins.

Well I didn't expect I'd be hitting wall to wall traffic long before that and ended up passing the spot marked on my map as Ft. Collins with no sign of any centralized population center. Oh there was all the traffic you'd expect but no shopping centers, car dealerships, fast food, etc. At least not within sight of the interstate. It was kind of weird!

The next thing I knew I was getting too close to Denver (Very slowly as by now the traffic was spending as much time stopped as moving.) to expect to be able to snag a last minute campsite, even if I was willing to give up my precious and jealously guarded spot in the creeping mass of traffic.

Next thing I knew, my stick-with-the-herd inertia had me trapped in the environs of Denver itself; a city I used to travel to frequently for work and which has never my favorite place. (Seeing that dirty dome of pollution over the city that's associated with the Rocky Mountains was always disheartening whether I was coming in by road or by air.)

By the time I shook myself free of the machine that nearly swallowed me alive, I was coasting through Colorado Springs at slightly more than idle speed, which was a whole lot faster than the northbound lanes that were all trying to squeeze by one of those oh-crap-I-didn't-see-he-was-stopped chain reaction wrecks that had everything except half the right shoulder shut down, and I cast my eye on a truckstop, the first real truckstop since north of Denver. But one exit before I got there I saw a KOA sign and the siren song of electric hookups to run the AC with lured me in.

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