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TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX >Don't Feed the Donkeys!

Rapid City, SD to Custer State Park and the Crazy Horse Memorial   07/05/06 (Day 71)

Don’t Feed the Donkeys!

 

Whether you think General Custer deserves to have a park named after him or not, the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road that cut through Custer State Park in South Dakota are great drives, just be prepared to go slow for two very good reasons.

The first reason is the wildlife. We enter the park in the early morning and are almost immediately greeted by a pair of North American prong horn. Then we spot a huge lone bison strolling through a wooded area. It’s very strange to see a bison in the forest after seeing so many in the plains of Badlands National Park and elsewhere and even stranger that a park named for General Custer should now be a haven for the beasts he helped bring to the brink of  extinction. The bison is even the official symbol used by the park.

But we digress.

After watching the bison amble off we drive on a few more miles before we are ground to a complete and utter halt by the park’s unofficial mascots, the begging burros. These are donkeys gone wild, literally, and they now live completely undomesticated within the park where they rely on their adorable oversized ears and our fond childhood memories of Eyeore to ensure a steady stream of handouts from motorists. To make sure said handouts get handed out, these precocious pack animals have learned to loiter on the road forcing vehicles to stop.

Their job is made easier by the fact that a convenience store located in the park actually sells bags of day old bread labeled “burro food.” Please don’t buy any.

The second reason the Needles Highway is a slow route is the highway itself. It’s narrow. How narrow? In places it’s honestly more of bike path. It’s also so windy that it doesn’t just have switchbacks, it also has these engineering marvels called “pigtails” that tightly deliver traffic back to more than 360 degrees from where it started. As you can imagine, this is fun for drivers but not so fun for passengers.

Then there are the three 8’ wide single lane tunnels hacked and blasted out of solid rock along the route. These require cautious speeds because they are so narrow (though our Silverado made it through without the need to retract the side view mirrors). You’ll also go through these tunnels slowly because they’ve been positioned in such a way as to frame a breathtaking view of Mt. Rushmore in the distance.

Tip: many locals drive up the Needles Highway and park with a view of Mt. Rushmore when the monument puts on its annual Independent Day fireworks display (see previous Travel Journal entry).

Custer State Park, while beautiful, ultimately feels a bit like Lion Country Safari, only with North American Animals. Especially after we see three huge bison herds right from the truck as we drive along the park’s Wildlife Loop. The bison are so common on the road that Custer State Park Rangers warn motorcyclists to be cautious since the animals sometimes mistake the sound of their engines for the low rumble of a rival bison.

From a park named after General Custer, we head to an ode to his nemesis, the Crazy Horse Memorial 11 miles away. The story of how this place came to be is fascinating and unlikely and much too complicated to get into here (you probably wouldn’t believe us anyway), so click here for the the details.

In the end, all you really need to know is that the Crazy Horse Memorial is the most dignified representation of Native Americans that we’ve seen on the trip to date (tied with the Akta Lakota Museum in Chamberlain, South Dakota, see previous Travel Journal entry), even though it is far, far from being completed. When it is ultimately finished (and after you visit you actually believe it will be done one day), the place will be awesome in the true sense of the word.

 
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