Thursday, September 29, 2005

Custer, SD - Jewels, Needles, & Wildlife

Jewel Cave
Even though September is a great time to tour the busy parks, one of the downfalls is that there are usually less services. At both Wind Cave and Jewel Cave this meant one kind of tour being offered. Normally there are about 5 different tours, not to mention the wild tours. Not so in September. But we enjoyed Jewel Cave. The group was smaller (30 vs 40 people at Wind Cave), and may I remind you that I get claustrophobic in a crowd, not a cave. So these big tours weren’t really our thing. One thing we should’ve done differently was bring our own flashlights – you can see a lot more detail in the formations with your own light. We just hung around the family in front of us who had their own lights. The most common formation was Nailhead. These knobby looking crystals covered the ceilings and walls. Some areas of the cave are wet creating the normal formations: stalactites, stalagmites, cave popcorn, and cave bacon, etc. Here's a picture of a 20 foot long cave bacon.

Needles Highway (Hwy 87)
Needles Highway is just one of several scenic drives in the Black Hills. Our first stop on the loop was Sylvan Lake, a pretty little lake with huge boulders bordering the backside. A short trail takes you around the lake and over some of these boulders. Fog was encroaching over the rocky outcroppings and mist was rolling over the lake. Back on the highway we drove through rock tunnels and past granite spires with names like Needles Eye, Cathedral Spires and Little Devil’s Tower. We still don’t know if Black Hills got its name because of all the dark granite outcroppings or because the hills look black from the thick Ponderosa Pine forest that covers the hills. Both provide a great contrast to the yellow and gold of the aspens and birches, though. On the way home we were even lucky enough to spot a Great Horned Owl sitting on a snag at the edge of the forest.


Custer State Park – Wildlife Loop Road
As the name states, you should see lots of wildlife on this scenic drive. We must’ve picked a bad day. It was chilly and foggy at the higher elevations of the drive. For the first several miles we didn’t see anything. Then we saw a few deer, then later a herd of bison in the distance, but what made it all worth it was seeing pronghorns – and one was right next to the road which is unusual. They normally stay pretty far away from the roads and people.

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