Day 3: Black Elk Peak Hike and Mount Rushmore

Day 3 began pretty leisurely as the skies were overcast and looked to be threatening rain. I’d wanted to go paddleboarding again on Stockade lake, but unfortunately the weather wasn’t cooperating, Instead I decided to pack up and head to Sylvan Lake and the Black Elk Peak hike that the staff at the Hot Springs KOA had recommended. I figured the cooler temps and overcast skies were perfect for hiking. The weather was also perfect for leaving Pepper in the bus as the hike was way too much for her.

The drive to Sylvan lake was a little harrowing on a narrow winding road, but we made it just fine. We arrived at around 10am and I’d suggest not getting there any later if you are in a big bus as there is limited parking for large RVs.

I grabbed my water and camera and set out on the hike. Black Elk Peak is touted as the highest point east of the rockies, and west of the Piranese mountains in Europe. That makes it sound overly impressive. It is the highest point in South Dakota, and the 360 degree views are amazing. I’d love to have seen it on a clear sunny day.

As the trail reaches the summit the vista opens up around you and you can see all of the surrounding area, including the backside of Mount Rushmore. At the summit stands the Harney lookout tower which was built by the CCC during the depression and was used to spot forest fires. Now decommissioned it's makes for an awesome viewing platform for the entire region.

Overall, the trail is well populated, so even being a solo hiker I felt safe if something went wrong, but definitely not crowded. And the crowd thinned as you got closer to the top. Its not a steep hike, but at 6.5 miles round trip, it’s a bit of a trek for the average tourist. The signs said to allow 4-5 hours but it took me just over 2 round trip, even with a number of breaks and photo stops. Wear good hiking shoes as the trail is rocky and the last 100 yards are on granite steps. This trail is definitely on my “must-do” list for Custer State Park.

After the hike I made lunch in the bus (I was starving!) and took Pepper for a walk. We then packed up to head to the Mount Rushmore area for the night. Since the weather was still gloomy we decided to take the scenic route via the Wildlife Loop, a narrow winding road traveling through the park. We did see some buffalo but not as many as the day before.

We arrived at the Rushmore Shadows RV park tired and sweaty so after settling into the campsite I headed out for a shower. The hot water felt great. This campground has full hook-ups at all of their sites (water, elec, sewer) but the sewer hook-up is at the very back of the site so my hose doesn’t reach. I’ll have to dump my gray water before I head out to Badlands. But in the mean time I can take advantage of the water and electrical hook-ups.

After a quick nap I was hungry again (hiking worked up an appetite!) and I was craving pizza. Big time. So I decided to run to Wal-Mart (ugh!) and pick up a few other provisions as well.

After dinner the skies had cleared and there was a beautiful sunset brewing. I’d heard that visiting Mount Rushmore at night is a great experience, so I fired up the bus and we made our way up there around 9pm.

Quick side note: I love that everything is with me in the bus. But it also means that everything HAS to come with me when I go places like Sylvan lake (where I don’t know if I can find parking), or to Mount Rushmore where they don’t allow dogs (except in the car). Small errands like running to a grocery store are more complicated because I have to take my entire home with me. Sure, I could have brought a car and towed it, but that just seemed like way too much. And can you imagine the gas mileage?

Anyway, back to Rushmore… I was right. A great sunset was brewing and Rushmore is better in the evening. There was no wait at the entrance to buy tickets and I scored rockstar RV parking. Despite growing up in Denver, about 6 hours from here, I’d never been to Mount Rushmore. I have to say, it’s pretty spectacular to finally see it in person. And highlighted by a gorgeous sunset made it even more exciting.

Tip: In the evenings they show a video in the amphitheater which is worth watching, but leave when “America the Beautiful” is over and after snapping a few photos of the monument illuminated at night. After “America the Beautiful” they invite everyone to stand and sing the National Anthem and then everyone leaves all at once. Even though Rushmore isn’t crowded at night, all of those people leaving at once, and merging with a 35’ school bus, wouldn’t be pleasant. Luckily I left just in the nick of time and beat thr traffic out.

Back at the campsite I took Pepper for a walk and then climbed in bed.