Rapid City, Black Hills, and Custer State Park

After an hour of vast nothingness for as far as the eye could see, we finally hit civilization at the outskirts of Rapid City. At the first red light, we started smelling gas strong inside the cabin.

It didn’t take us long to realize gas was pouring out of our front gas tank. Turns out Kyle accidentally left the gas cap off of our front tank after a lengthy conversation with some bikers back in Interior, SD. After a trip to Auto Zone for a new gas cap and some further trouble shooting, we realized we had a much bigger issue on our hands. This turned into a couple nights sleeping in auto shop parking lots and a bust of the better part of a week in Rapid City.

A word on Ford 80’s model dual tank fuel systems: they are complicated, finicky, and mostly mechanical (i.e. difficult to diagnose).

In our case, if both tanks are full and we start on the rear, gas flows into the front tank and over pressurizes the system to the point leaks spring at just about every line union under the chassis (or out of the fill neck if the cap is left off). Leaving the gas cap off back in the Badlands seemed to be the catalyst for the issue, but the tanks have always been a bit touchy. Thousands of miles later, our best advice was from the folks at Dakota Truck & Auto which, after paying them several hundred dollars to rip the system apart and change a couple hoses to no avail, was “just burn up the front tank before switching to the rear”. Probably could’ve came to that conclusion on our own, but trial and error isn’t exactly a viable option when the entire underbody of your vehicle is spewing gas.

Such is van life.

After a couple days moping around town, we were finally ready to commence with the most vantastic of voyages. There’s a lot to explore in the areas surrounding Rapid City, so we made an effort to break it up as much as possible into after work explorations and a full on weekend in the woods. This meant trekking quite a few miles each day back and forth, but because of our work obligations, that’s just how it has to be sometimes.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is one of the biggest attractions in the Black Hills. So we took an afternoon to check it out, but we didn’t pay admission (that’s right, REBELS). There’s a turnout off on the way up with a perfect view of the granite facade. So we took it in, snapped a picture, and that was really enough for us.

Mount Rushmore, Black Hills South Dakota
Money saving view of Mt. Rushmore from roadside turnout.

Driving the Iron Mountain Road seemed like a way better way to spend the remainder of the afternoon than admiring white mens’ faces carved into a mountain summit on sacred native land. So that’s what we did. Scenic views, narrow one-way tunnels, and thrilling hair pin turns in a van that handles like a whale — what more could you ask for?! Animals, thats what. The Iron Mountain Road winds through Custer State Park, which has the largest Bison heard in North America. And we didn’t see a damn one. So it goes.

tunnel on Iron Mountain, Black Hills South Dakota
One of the many narrow tunnels on Iron Mountain

The next day, we checked out the unfinished Crazy Horse Monument, which is physically much larger than Rushmore (the entire Rushmore sculpture is about the same size as Crazy Horse’s head). The story of how the monument came to be built and the man and his family who have been working on it for almost 80 years (at least from the perspective of the short documentary shown in the visitors center) is extremely romantic — a true western tale. The organization doesn’t accept any government funding. Their entire budget consists of admissions to the attraction and donations. We spent a couple hours admiring the sculpture, watching the previously mentioned documentary (worth it), and perusing their Native American museum. Any trip to the black hills would be wasted without checking out Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse Monument Black Hills, South Dakota
Crazy Horse Monument

After work the next day we checked out the Horse Thief Lake Trail, which is a 3.5 mile out & back trek that’s more of a pleasant walk in the woods than a serious hike. We brought Molly Meatball on the first half mile or so of the trail and unfortunately she didn’t share our feelings, so we had to bring her back to the van and completed the trail on our own. Turns out any kind of elevation change really isn’t her thing.

Kyle and English Bulldog of Horse Thief Trail in Black Hills, South Dakota
Kyle and Meatball taking a break on the Horse Thief Trail

The trail is lined with beautiful rock formations, birch trees, and babbling brooks around every corner. A good amount of sitting water on and around the trail makes for a lot of flies and mosquitos in summer. Nonetheless, a great afternoon hike.

Friday night, we spent the night camping by Pactola Lake. The grounds were heavily forested with lots of space behind each parking spot and huge fire rings which Kyle, in typical boy fashion, probably took far too much advantage of.

camp fire by lake pactola camp site in black hills, south dakota
Kyle and Meatball keeping warm
Kate and English Bulldog in hammock, Pactola Lake, Black Hills, South Dakota
Kate and Meatball lounging

Our next door neighbors at Pactola Lake happened to be a beautiful family who had coincidently moved from Florida to South Dakota not too long before. They recommended some hikes for us and we are so glad they did. We spent the rest of our time in the Black Hills exploring the Black Elk Wilderness.

We hiked 10 miles of trail in the Lake Sylvan area including Black Elk Peak, formerly known as Harney Peak. Turns out old Harney killed so many Natives in his day they recently decided to stop honoring him. (That only took 100 years… So it goes). Black Elk Peak is claimed to be the tallest peak east of the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Pyrenees Mountains. The internet says that may be disputable, nonetheless, our time there was truly unforgettable.

Water side view of Lake Sylvan, Black Hills, South Dakota
Lake Sylvan
Climbers on top of cathedral spires black hills, south dakota
A slightly more challenging route to catch a view of the Black Hills

The other trails we hiked in the area were Little Devil’s Spur Trail and Cathedral Spires Trail, both of which are less challenging than summiting Black Elk Peak and totally worth the extra leg work to complete. We also went on a quest to find the Poet’s Table, which took us off of the beaten path at several points before finally finding it near the end of our hike at the Little Devil’s Spur trailhead (which is also where we started).

Cathedral Spires rock formations black hills, south dakota
Cathedral Spires
Poets table by rock wall black hills, south dakota
Poets’ table off of Little Devil’s Spur Trail

We spent a lot of time and energy trying to find this thing, so if you start from Devils Spur, just know its only a couple tenths of a mile from the start of the hike on the left and probably better to catch at the beginning rather than waiting until the end when you’re already exhausted (worth it either way).

Kyle and Kate by Poets table black hills, south dakota

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