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Upward Chapter 3

After lingering in Nebraska, we lingered again in northwestern South Dakota and southwestern North Dakota.

There’s been something captivating about the North American Plains. Maybe it’s the glowing mix of greens and yellows below puffy clouds in all directions. Maybe it’s because we’ve spent so much time ogling mountains over the years that we’re ready to appreciate the relatively subtle beauty here. Maybe it’s a break from the news that’s provided space in our brains....

Our route
“Anyone can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie.” ~Willa Cather

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.

No fish were killed in the making of this blog. In fact, if you know what kind of fish this is we’d love to know! (We think it’s a yellow perch.)

There was a beautiful trail circling the lake, with wildflowers and overlooks - great for a morning hike.

The hills are alive, with the sound of songbirds, coyotes and wind through the pines.
The Black Hills have plenty of blues and greens of their own.

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.

It was windy!
It turned out to be a lovely and private overnight stop.
Our views at sunrise. (Well, for the one of us who was awake!) The road below us led to Riley pass, at one time a wagon route. Now it’s closed for a 20-year multimillion dollar cleanup. Uranium mining in the 1950’s and 60’s left 250 acres of contaminated soil and water in these tablelands.

Then it was on to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

The Little Missouri River canyon in TRNP. This view was so beloved, the CCC was tasked with building this shelter even before preservation of the area was a certainty.

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.”

In 1884 Roosevelt came to the North Dakota Badlands to mourn the passing of his wife and mother, who died in the same house on the same day. He built a ranch on the Little Missouri River, but was unsuccessful raising cattle due to a particularly bad winter.
Plenty of bison here, and the rut has begun

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.

Clockwise from top left: prairie dog, wild horses, antelope, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, and bison

What you may have heard about an energy boom in North Dakota is very real. We saw drilling rigs at every turn in the National Grasslands, on public land, on private land, and from roads within the national park. That’s not an exaggeration.

What would Roosevelt think?
Created By
alison blakeslee
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