Day 7 -- Gillette, WY to Custer, SD

Including WY - Devils Tower - Mt. Rushmore - Custer State Park

This morning I am a little bit better still. A hot shower is also a help. It happens that our motel is right next to one of the restaurants that is recommended in the booklet I bought last night. Since dinner was good last night, we decide to eat at Granny's Kitchen. When we get there it looks like the restaurant is closed. But the door is open and there are a couple of tables occupied inside. We wait to be seated, and we begin to wonder whether the help has arrived. Eventually someone seats us and leaves menus. Then they disappear. It took a while before our order was taken. Then we waited for the order to arrive. There is only so long that a child's placemat and a few crayons can keep a hungry young boy occupied. We located the waitress and asked what the delay was. It seemed that a local organization was having a breakfast meeting in a back room. The kitchen and the staff were completely occupied preparing their breakfast and serving them. Finally our breakfasts came. Daniel decided that the syrup wasn't suitable, so he couldn't eat his contaminated pancake. Rebecca rolled her eyes and sighed. Kathy and I, experienced mothers, gave him some of ours and found a syrup that was satisfactory. He ate a few bites of his scrambled egg and some of the contributed pancake. When we finished eating, we left money for the bill, and found an open supermarket to replenish our supplies. While Kathy and Rebecca went inside, I stayed with Daniel and cleaned out and drained the ice chest. With the errands done, we were now ready to head off to Devils Tower.

We had a short jaunt on the Interstate before turning north at Moorcroft back onto US 14. We drove past Keyhole State Park and entered the northwest part of the Black Hills. The hills kept us from having a clear view of the country ahead of us so, despite our constant lookout, we could not spot Devils Tower. Then we can around a curve and there it was.

Devils Tower overview

We pulled out at an overlook on a small rise. The Belle Fourche River ran in front of the tower, cutting through the red sandstones, below us. It was certainly a sight to cause great wonder. We continued on to the entrance road passing people stopped to photograph the prairie dogs in their large town below the tower. We continued on to the parking lot, which was overflowing. After find a parking spot, we gathered our cameras and binoculars and headed for the trail that circled the base of the tower.

We walked up a trail through the forested slopes surrounding the base of the tower. As we approached the tower large chunks of rock littered the ground. They were unusual pieces of rock; they were pieces of the columns that had fallen from the sides of Devils Tower. They had flat sides and their cross-sections were polygonal, most 5 sided, but some with 4 or 6 sides. Then we broke out of the trees and the path turned to circle the tower. We had forest on one side and a talus slope at the base of the tower on the other. It is hard to explain what it is like to be near Devils Tower. It has held people's imaginations for centuries. N. Scott Momaday wrote about the Kiowa people:

"There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil's Tower is one of these. Two centuries ago, because they could not do otherwise, the Kiowas made a legend at the base of the rock.
Today we believe that we know at least the outline of the story of Devil's Tower. We know the it was once molten rock that intruded into the layers of sedimentary rock in this region. We know that it protrudes far above the surrounding countyside because it is much harder rock than the soft sandstones and shales that make up the rest of the local country rock. This softer rock erodes much more rapidly than the phonolite porphyry columns of the tower; it rises farther above the surrounding county with each succeeding year. This is our legend, our belief about the origin of Devils Tower. Does it make it any less of an overwheming, awe inspiring place. Not a chance. We are standing here now in very close proximity to what was once molten rock, magma which forced its way upward to the surface of the earth (or at least close). Isn't that incredible? Isn't that worth wondering about? This fantastic landscape was made by forces that we have absolutely no control over, are only beginning to understand.

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We walked around the tower to the southeast side, where the ascents are made. A telescope has been set up there for people to scan the tower walls. There was a small group descending the tower. They could be heard calling to each other. But more interesting than seeing men come down the last hundred feet of the tower was locating the remaining rungs of a "ladder" that had been pounded into a crack between two columns in 1873 for an Independence day ascent. We used the telescope and my field glasses to examine the side of the tower. With a little concentration I could direct Kathy and Rebecca to focus the glasses on the tower in the right place to see the lower "rungs" of the "ladder"; then they could follow it up the crack. Daniel, however, lost interest as soon as the climbers had scrambled down the rubble and scree at the base of the tower. Soon he pressured us to continue our walk around the trail. On the north side of the tower there were more large sections of columns lying on the ground. These were more impressive to Daniel than seeing the entire tower long distance. They were as big or bigger across than he was high. After these comparisons were completed, we walked on back to the visitor center. The kids could see the wildlife exhibit in the small museum there. Rebecca had to check out the posters available.

We drove back out past the prairie dog town and stopped again at the overlook on the highway to look back at the tower. Then we continued on south to Devils Tower Junction where we turned southeast to meet the interstate at Sundance where we turned east toward South Dakota. At Spearfish and drove south, skirting Lead, and drove through the Black Hills, land sacred to the Lakota, toward Keystone. Keystone is a town whose industry is tourism. It sits on the edge of Mt. Rushmore. As we drove through it seemed we saw nothing but motels with big swimming pools. Shortly after we left the town we entered Mt. Rushmore. It was a short drive to the entrance where we were directed to the parking area currently in use. After parking, we got everyone organized and started toward the viewpoints. Actually, the view from the parking lot is fine and not nearly so hard on the neck. But the kids wanted to get closer, to really be there. Actually, we are here because Rebecca is a movie buff. She saw Alfred Hitchcock's Mt. Rushmore. So we are here now, in the middle of a crowd who wants to see this mountain that has been made to conform to the wishes of the men who wanted to demonstrate their domination over nature and the previous owners of this landscape. And, of course, the area was under construction. We only spent a few minutes in the crowd, we visited the museum where a video on the making of the monument was playing continuously. After everyone made use of the facilities, we returned to the car and figured out how to get to Custer State Park.

We turned south and headed into the heart of the Black Hills (Paha Sapa). We entered through the Needles region, a fantastic sculptured landscape of spires in what is now called the Harney Range.

Needles Area

Again we are in the Precambrian basement rock, thrust up through the sedimentary layers, which have since eroded away, leaving the granite bare to the sky. Here we drove through one lane tunnels through the rock into a land of eroded spires. We stopped at a pullout and got out to look. It was indeed a fantastic landscape. We continued down the road, through the dense forests that give these mountains their English name. As we drove we took note of the locations of campgrounds in the park. Tomorrow night we would camp here.

Suddenly we noticed a pair of antelope on our left. As we pulled up and stopped the car, we saw that there were two antelope babies with them. As we watched the parents with their children, one of the babies came bounding toward us, curious as to just what we might be. The other one came bounding after his sibling, but the first was satisfied with a quick look at us and they went bouncing back to their parents. Over the objections of Rebecca and Daniel we decided to press on because we wanted to drive the wildlife loop before returning to Custer and finding a room for the night.

We turned in to the wildlife loop and stopped to show that we had paid our entrance fee to the attendant. She warned us that all the bison in the park were over in another section and we were unlikely to see many today. We laughed and replied that we had seen so many bison in the last few days that we probably would not miss them. With that introduction, we started off on the drive. Shortly we saw a few bison on the hills in the distance. Oh well, we said, they seem to be up there on the hills. Then we came around a sharp curve and Kathy braked to a sudden stop. The road was filled with bison. They had decided that they wanted to graze here and we were not about to challenge them. They had many calves with them, with just little nubbins of horns on their heads. It certainly appeared to be improvident to disturb them. After all, the grass gets more water beside the road because of the runoff from the pavement. It was perfectly reasonable that they preferred the grass by the roadside. One large bull had placed himself in the center of the road to guard his flock.

Several cars coming the other direction had stopped one of them drew our attention. One of the passengers in a minivan had opened the side door and was hanging out holding a video camera. The driver then began to manuever the van closer to the giant animals while the man hung of the open door with the camera. We simply watched with our jaws dropped. This continued for almost ten minutes without aggravating the bull in charge excessively. Then other drivers started to get impatient. One behind us pulled out to pass and started through the herd. The bull decided not to challenge these cars. By the time the other cars had gone by, the road was almost clear, though the bison herd was still all there, just off the pavement. Kathy drove slowly through the herd. The calves skittered along the roadside, looking at us askance. The bulls and cows were basically unconcerned. When we cleared the herd, we continued on our drive.

The area along the drive is a beautiful high grassland. The late afternoon/evening was a wonderful time to see this country. We completed the drive by driving across the center of the park, finding the campground where we wanted to set up camp in the morning, and leaving the park and arriving in the town of Custer. We found a motel with a room that would serve. After we had moved in, we took a vote on where we would eat tonight. The fact that there was a Mexican restaurant in town, no matter how much we doubted its authenticity, was too much to bypass. We all agreed that we would eat at Tortilla Flat tonight.

The restaurant was divided between a section that served takeout and the "sit down" section. After we figured out the geometry of the restaurant, we entered and found a table. The dinner was quite acceptable, with only one minor mishap. Daniel spilled his drink, which upset him greatly. Kathy and I got it cleaned up and she settled him down. There were only a couple of other tables occupied, also by tourists. At one table was a young girl about Daniel's age. They kept sneaking glances at each other. As the meal progressed, more and more of their attention was focused on each other, not on the meal. When the other family left, Daniel was coerced into eating some of his dinner. Finally we left and returned to the motel to negotiate the use of one bathroon for 4 people. Then we had to find a working light bulb so that I could read a bit before going to sleep. At last everything was settled, and we retired for the night.

It didn't rain.


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Photographs are available from the American Memory exhibits at the Library of Congress.

A photograph of Devils Tower taken by William Henry Jackson in 1898 for the Detroit Publishing Co.

Several photographs taken in the Black Hills campaigns of Generals Custer and Crook, taken in the 1870s, are available from the National Archives Photographs of the American West online exhibit:

Column of cavalry, artillery, and wagons, commanded by Gen. George A. Custer, crossing the plains of Dakota Territory. By W. H. Illingworth, 1874 Black Hills expedition.

"Our First Grizzly, killed by Gen. Custer and Col. Ludlow." By lllingworth, 1874, during Black Hills expedition.

Hunting and camping party of Custer (standing in center) and invited guests. Fort A. Lincoln on the Little Heart River, Dak. Terr., 1875.

Valentine T. McGillycuddy, surgeon and topographer on hunger march with General Crook's expedition to the Black Hills, Dak. Terr., 1876.

"Gen. Crook's headquarters in the field at Whitewood [Dak. Terr.]. On starvation march 1876." Closeup of a camp scene shows tents improvised from wagon frames during the Black Hills expedition.

"Scene of Gen. Custer's last stand, looking in the direction of the ford and the Indian village." A pile of bones on the Little Big Horn battlefield is all that remains, ca. 1877.

And photographs of activities in Deadwood:

Mining crew drifting for gold below discovery point, Deadwood, Dak. Terr. Bystanders pose for photographer S. J. Morrow, ca. 1876.

"Deadwood in 1876." General view of the Dakota Territory gold rush town from a hillside above. By S. J. Morrow.

"Gayville in Deadwood Gulch, Black Hills [Dak. Terr.], 1876." Log cabins under construction at the foot of a hillside.

See our map and guide reference section for trail maps and other useful information available from has over 3,500 maps.

South Dakota Atlas and Gazetteer, Delorme Publishing.

Roadside Geology of South Dakota, John Paul Gries, Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, MT

Natural History of the Black Hills and Badlands, Sven G. Froiland, The Center for Western Studies, Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD

The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich, Viking

Time Exposure : The Autobiography of William Henry Jackson, William Henry Jackson, Patrice Press.

William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape, Peter B. Hales, Temple Univ. Press.

William Henry Jackson: Framing the Frontier, Douglas Waitley, Gwen McKenna, William H. Jackson, Mountain Press. (Hardcover)

Devils Tower - Stories in Stone, Mary Alice Gunderson, High Plains Press, Glendo, WY

Skins, Adrian C. Louis, Crown.

Cheyenne Memories of the Custer Fight, Richard G. Hardorff, Univ. Nebraska Press.

Lakota Recollections of the Custer Fight: New Sources of Indian-Military History, Richard G. Hardorff, Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Killing Custer, James Welch, Norton. (Video)

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© 1995 - Karen M. Strom