We returned home Tuesday morning shortly after two, exhausted and road-weary, but entirely wonderstruck by our journey.
At my urging, we left Thursday morning, getting on the road around 7:30am. With a quick stop for gas, we were on our way northwest. Matilda settled into the backseat and I proceeded to dive into one of the four books that I had packed. By the time we crossed the Missouri at Chamberlain and edged closer to Rapid City, I had finished “The Children’s Home” by Charles Lambert, a poignant, frightening read. Thankful, I was able to put the book away and focus on the breathtaking views surrounding us.
We arrived in Hill City, South Dakota around 2:30pm, stopping for groceries for the days ahead before we made our way to the Double Diamond Ranch to check into our cabin. After weeks of searching for cabin that was affordable, accessible to the area we wanted to stay in, and would allow dogs, Corey managed to find us the Hakuna Matata cabin. It was everything we could’ve hoped to find. It was the perfect place to relax after our days spent hiking and exploring the park.
After a day of traveling, we spent the evening making tacos and watching TV with a fire roaring before we relaxed in the hot tub.
Friday we woke up to perfect autumn weather. We drove down to Custer – stopping at the cemetery quickly so that I might snap a photo of the marker placed by my cousins on our Mary’s grave (had to sneak a genealogy stop in there somewhere!) – to visit the State Park where we drove the Wildlife Loop. We were a week early for the annual buffalo round-up and I think because of that, we saw very little. A few lone antelope and deer and a handful of burros.
For lunch, we went back to into Custer and stopped at the Black Hills Burger and Bun Co. which was rated the #1 place to get burgers in the country by the Huffington Post a few years ago, and they were not wrong. I had tried eating here a few years ago with my mom, but it was closed the day we were in Custer. It was well worth the wait. And don’t be surprised to wait when you visit. We arrived a little after 1pm and were told it would be about a twenty minute wait for a table for two. But we were lucky because not five minutes later the hostess was back letting us know a space had opened at the community table if we wouldn’t mind. I ordered the Lousy Hunter and it was the best black bean burger I’ve had to date. It held its shape, it was crispy, ah, just, delicious.
After lunch, we went back into the park, heading to Sylvan Lake. We parked and began hiking trail #9. While we didn’t hike the whole trail, we did hike a mile or two, stopping to take in the sights. We spent some time enjoying the weather and lake before we decided to try our hand at climbing a few of the rock cliffs near the edge of Sylvan. Corey made his way to the top, but with Matilda in tow, we chose to rest upon the lower levels.
On Saturday, we returned once more the Custer State Park, and to Sylvan, where we began to hike trail #4: Little Devil’s Tower, to begin the hunt for the elusive Poet’s Table. We had tried searching for it on last year’s trip, but the day we went was very foggy and, as we climbed, we weren’t able to see much. This year was different. It was a little overcast and chilly, and felt all the colder with the wind blowing, but at least it was clear. My brother and his girlfriend were going to meet us at the trailhead, but as they knew where Poet’s Table was, Corey and I decided to try our luck alone. We started out on the trail and a group of hikers followed after us. We stopped a short ways in, noticing the worn footpath that led off the trail. As we debated on whether we should give it a try, one of the hikers from the group asked, “Are you trying to find Poet’s Table?” We said we were and he said that that was the right path. We began our ascent, but about halfway up, I became winded so we stepped to the side for a break. The group told us how to go and we thanked them as they continued the upward journey.
When we caught our breath, we continued upward, cresting the hill. The trail disappeared, as had the hikers we had started the trail with, and we quickly became unsure of where to go. After some backtracking and some off-trail searches (one of which led Corey to find a ladder nestled in a rocky nook with the quote “All who wander are not lost” etched on a leg) we finally decided to press on and make our own path. From the crest, I could see my brother and his girlfriend, continuing on the main trail. But we were determined we would find Poet’s Table on our own. We continued down the side, climbing over fallen trees and brush, while Matilda squeezed her way beneath logs like a real mountain dog and we reached yet another off-trail footpath. We began our hike up this new path, where we encountered the three hikers that we began our journey with. They told us my brother was at the top, and they apologized for the confusion. “We weren’t sure where it was either!” That didn’t matter. What mattered is that we all had found it. And we had fun creating our own path.
The view alone was worth it all. I would’ve loved to have stayed longer, but the winds picked up, and a storm looked to be soon raging. We made our way down, and said our goodbyes to my brother. They were heading back home but Corey and I decided to continue exploring the park. We ended up going to the Badger Clark cabin, which sadly closed at Labor Day. I had never heard of Badger Clark before this trip, but when we returned to our cabin that night, I looked up a few of his poems, and I was instantly charmed by South Dakota’s poet laureate. I plan to return again in the summer for a tour.
Sunday, we watched a bit of football before we left the cabin and drove the short distance to Sheridan Lake and Pactola Reservoir. We were all worn out from our hikes Friday and Saturday, but we did manage a short little jaunt to the shores of Pactola. The water is so eerily clear, but it was beautiful.
I had a case of the sads Sunday on our way back to the cabin from Pactola, because once I’m in the hills, I never want to leave. Corey mentioned that it was probably better to visit than to live because he worried that after time the allure would fade. And I thought on that sentiment a bit, having had similar thoughts. Like when you go nose-blind to the smells around you. And I would hate to look at such gorgeous views, such monumental works of art and be blinded.
By Monday, I still had that sinking feeling in my stomach, but I was able to whisper a goodbye before we turned the car onto Highway 16 and proceeded north to Rapid. We had decided to take extra time Monday for more exploring, so I took Corey up to Dinosaur Park and downtown to wander through the Presidential statues. We met my brother and his girlfriend for lunch before following my brother out to view their new house near Ellsworth AFB. After leaving the house, Corey and I stopped by the Air and Space Museum for a quick walk through. We also decided to do the Badlands Loop before heading home.
As my head sank into my own pillow Tuesday morning, my heart was full. There is something so magical about the Black Hills, especially Hill City and Custer for me, that leaves my heart and soul entirely at peace. That warm, fuzzy feeling that starts from your core and spreads outward, tingly your fingers and toes. That irresistible urge to smile and the feeling that once you start smiling, you’ll never stop. My heart belongs to the hills. It’s in my blood, as it has been for generations. Now all that’s left is to plan the next trip…
**All photos are my own unless otherwise stated**