The Black Hills of South Dakota are so-named because their tree-clad slopes look dark from a distance. An isolated “mountain” range (120 miles by 60 miles) they rise from the Great Plains to 7242 feet at Black Elk Peak. It’s a land of bison, prairie dogs, Mount Rushmore, and lots of Native American history. (Think Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Custer.)
We chose to camp in the forests of the Black Hills, rather than the Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks, places we’ve seen. We found an empty campground on the north shore of Deerfield Lake (at 5900 feet) under roiling clouds. We were spared the rain, but at 54 degrees, it was a two-sleeping-bag-night.
There was a beautiful trail circling the lake, with wildflowers and overlooks - great for a morning hike.
After a re-supply of gas, ice & groceries, we continued north across what else? More grassland. We made a 90-degree left turn into the North Cave Hills unit of the Custer National Forest, about 20 square miles of sandstone buttes and outcroppings overlooking the prairie.
Then it was on to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
If you’ve seen Ken Burns’ series on our national parks, the episodes featuring Teddy Roosevelt come to life here. A native New Yorker, the progressive republican (as he labeled himself) spent a lot of time in these badlands, first in his formative years, and later to take breaks from his political life. He said he never would have been president if not for his time in North Dakota. The park is a fitting tribute for his efforts in elevating conservation to a national tradition. (And on Mount Rushmore, he’s beside Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington.) He referred to our parks as “a refuge of the American spirit.”
Like so many national parks this one has more opportunities to see wildlife than in areas where hunting is allowed (and where a fear of humans aids in survival). Getting out early also helps.