Thursday, September 13, 2012

Needles Highway - 09/13/12

This is our last day at Custer State Park. We started our tour today with a visit to a cabin in Custer State Park known as Badger Hole. This cabin was home to one of the park’s most colorful historic characters, Charles Badger Clark. He was South Dakota’s first poet laureate.

Clark built his cabin, the Badger Hole, and lived an independent life in the park for the last 30 years of his life. He wrote poetry, read from his extensive library and wrote letters to his many fans. He lived there until his death in 1957 at the age of 74.

His life was fulfilling. As he enjoyed people and people enjoyed him. He gave lectures, told stories and recited his poetry at many social gatherings.

His distinctive dress – riding breeches and boots, military blouse, flowing tie, officer-type jacket and broad-brimmed hat – illustrated the independence and mystery of this larger-than-life man.

The cabin is located in an isolated patch of pine forest. It is a fairly large, well-preserved, single story log cabin structure, about 30 feet square. Unfortunately, we were not able to view the inside of the cabin since it is only open for public tours from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

We continued on our adventure by taking the Needles Highway Scenic Drive that runs north on SD-87 within Custer State Park. It is a 14- mile, very narrow, hilly, winding road with several 10 mph hairpin curves.

There are two tunnels carved through the granite rock on this route that accommodate only one vehicle at a time. The first tunnel provided adequate clearance for our Ford E150 Van and is about three car lengths long. The second tunnel was very narrow and we had to fold the passenger side mirror in. Sharon could just about touch the wall of this tunnel with her arm outstretched. This tunnel was about five car lengths long.

These are not the smooth-sided concrete tunnels we are accustomed to in the Midwest. These are solid rock tunnels throughout their length. The ceiling and walls are very rough protruding surfaces; probably a result from the blasting and drilling required to carve these tunnels out of the granite rock they go through.

As you exit the second tunnel you immediately encounter a giant granite rock formation called the Needle’s Eye. It is located at the highest point on this highway at an elevation in excess of 6,000 feet. It is a knife-shaped spire that has a large hole through it in the shape of the eye of a sewing needle. It is quite a work of art by Mother Nature.

We were fortunate to come upon three rock climbers getting ready to repel down a granite rock formation. There were two women and one man in the group. The skill, courage and physical strength required for this type of activity is simply amazing.

The Needles Scenic Highway section of Custer State Park is so different from the rest of the park. It’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needle-like granite formations which seem to pierce the horizon along the highway.

Our final tour of the day took us back to the Wildlife Loop Road at 5:00 p.m., looking for those darn bison! Finally!! At 6:30 p.m. we spotted a large herd walking single file high up on a hill in the distance. As we got closer we could see they were coming from the other side of the hill, walking along a trail along the top of that hill that took them into an open meadow lower down. It was a wonderful sight; for as far as the eye could see were bison appearing over the horizon from the other side of the hill, following the rest of the herd on the trail at the top of the hill.

To top off the evening, we finished our tour of the Wildlife Tour Road viewing a flock of about 40 wild turkeys. It just does not get any better than this folks!

Off to our next adventure… Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

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