Our trip to South Dakota began as a complete mystery. I had no idea where in South Dakota we were going or what we would be doing, but that is what adventure is all about – diving into the great unknown. The fact that it was Friday the 13th only made the journey ahead that much more exciting for Lauren and me.
In preparation, I packed every conceivable piece of equipment, including gear for camping, rock climbing and mountain biking and, of course, my camera.
As we left Colorado behind, a new world emerged in front of us – open roads and a horizon of possibilities. We crossed the border into South Dakota and we were transported back in time to a state where the Wild West still lived. America’s great frontier shone through the many 1800s-era structures that dotted the landscape.
The sun was falling fast. Without a moment’s thought, I pulled over and convinced Lauren to let me out so I could climb an outcropping of rock. After a quick scrambling session to the top, I witnessed a beautiful sunset glowing amidst the blue sky.
We made our way to our accommodations at the Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch. When I arrived at the KOA, I was expecting an overly-touristy stay away from nature, but thankfully my first impressions lifted as we found ourselves staying in a cozy cabin in the woods. We unpacked our gear as we stuffed our faces with homemade mango salsa and chips. While Lauren laughed back on the memories of the day, I spent the last waking hours editing photos. It had been a breathtaking day.
When morning arrived, I stretched out of my sleeping bag to the sweet scent of the Black Hills National Forest pines. Even though I had a cabin, I hadn't been able to resist the urge to set up a tent right outside. Waking up outside is one of the best ways to wake up on the right side of the bed.
The plan for the day unfolded as we arrived at the Needles, one of South Dakota’s most renowned rock climbing locations. The area was chock full of these rock spires, which seemingly grew from the ground. Cheyenne, from Sylvan Rocks Climbing School, was our climbing guide for the day and met us at the lake’s edge with a belt of quick draws jingling at his waist. Right away, I knew this guy was ready for some epic climbs. After some careful planning, Cheyenne knew just the right spots to take me for some jaw-dropping, photo-worthy routes.
Cheyenne turned out to be a great guide as he was always on point with safety, watching out for me as I snapped photos. After 7 hours of climbing, the weather moved in, so we decided to call it a day. Cheyenne was still game for more climbs, but I could see Lauren was ready to head back. To be fair, my stomach was pulling me back to base camp, too. We returned to our home base just in time for a stunning sunset and some homemade garden Fettuccine – one of my backcountry specialties.
After some downtime editing photos, Lauren suggested we head out to see Mount Rushmore National Memorial all lit up. I guess it would be pretty un-American of me to resist. Tired from the day, I hesitantly went along. Sure, Lauren had to twist my arm, but afterwards I was extremely thankful – that night I captured one of my most favorite images of all time. I like to think that the art of photography is found as much in the post production phase as it is in the production phase. In editing this photo I really tried to capture the feeling I had as I looked up at the presidents’ faces, rather than what was directly visible through the lens.
On Sunday, Lauren and I endeavored to climb Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak), the tallest peak in South Dakota (7,242 feet), where you can see three other states. A Tennessee girl who worked the campground’s coffee shop told us it was a climb “not to be attempted by the faint of heart” as she poured our morning coffee and prepped our calorific bagel and cheese.
Despite our slow start, we made our way on the trail before noon and briskly journeyed up the peak. The trail itself was quite nice, but as we got closer to the top, the weather became interesting. A dark fog lowered and we lost visibility. But, despite tripping over a log on the way and with the weather intensifying the climb, we still managed to reach the peak in under two hours. Lauren and I giggled, expecting a grueling all-day haul as the coffee shop gal had implied, it actually turned out to be a short jaunt mixed with some unexpected weather.
When we arrived at the top, the heavy fog made it almost impossible to see much of anything, but it provided one helluva wicked backdrop for picture taking. We explored the historic fire lookout tower built at the mountain’s peak. Its façade reminded me of Bates Motel. We were told prior to our climb that we would be able to see Wyoming and Nebraska, but, given the weather, we weren’t able to make out any more than each other. Despite the weather, we had nearly-perfect cell reception, so I thought it might be a great idea to broadcast live over Periscope and give viewers an intimate tour of our backcountry kitchen and the picturesque tower in the background.
I had originally been planning to cook something upon the summit, but now, given the high winds, I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to boil water. It wasn’t until I had my backcountry stove lit and water boiling that Lauren and I decided on mac n’ cheese. You’re not a backcountry chef until you’ve cooked in the most extreme conditions. We successfully cooked ourselves a scrumptious white cheddar mac n’ cheese with shells, and subsequently were left with some dirty dishes. After a healthy argument over who would wash the dishes, we made the hike back down.
To brighten our moods, we decided to hit up a nearby town, Hill City, to experience the food and drink. By the time we arrived, the weather had cleared and we found a cool local dive café, Hill City Café. The hike must have really spiked our hunger because I devoured my roast beef sandwich in just a couple bites. With dinner done, it was back to base camp to edit photos and close another eventful day.
The original plan for Monday was to do a tour across the Black Hills via helicopter. Unfortunately, the weather wouldn’t permit this, so we headed to Baker's Bakery, a local favorite in Custer, where we discussed alternative plans. After the tasty breakfast, Lauren and I took off to Jewel Cave National Monument as our backup plan for the day. Jewel Cave is the third-largest cave in the world, with an impressive 185 miles of winding passages, much of them still unexplored – an adventurer’s paradise. When we got there, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but fortunately, Scott, one of the park rangers, offered to give us a tour – what a treat!
It turned out to be some of the best views I’ve seen in awhile, with colors and acoustics that instantly made you feel that you were in some Disneyland attraction. Every tight squeeze and precarious foothold posed a welcome challenge. I couldn’t have asked for more from the experience, although, I’ll admit, rappelling further into the depths of these caverns definitely crossed my mind. The caves themselves provided much-needed inspiration for future trips to navigate the unexplored passageways.
By the time we emerged into the sunlight, the weather had cleared and we found out the helicopter ride with Black Hills Aerial Adventures was back on. The day had gone from nose-chilling to face-warming, which meant it was time to take to the sky. Going from the dampness of a cave to the ear popping dryness of high altitude is an interesting transition for the mind.
When I saw the shape of the helicopter’s cockpit, a glass bubble, I immediately thought of Jurassic World’s gyro-spheres. The cockpit allowed us to view every angle in full detail. Along the way we passed Crazy Horse Memorial, Mount Rushmore and the pointed rock formations of the Needles, along with Harney Peak and our campground. It was riveting to say the least. The last time I flew in a helicopter, I was being airlifted in California, so this was definitely an improvement. To add to my enjoyment, I noticed that we had perfect reception for a live feed. In moments, I had my GoPro in hand recording our flight live on Periscope – what a rush for those watching and for us experiencing it firsthand.
Exiting a helicopter is like coming down from a euphoric high, which is why Lauren and I decided we would need some good food around a campfire to end this glorious day. So, back at the cabin/camp, we did just that – we prepped homemade guacamole around a glowing fire.
As soon as night fell, the glow sticks were out and Lauren was practicing her wild tricks. The fire roared on and, while Lauren swirled the glowing batons in the air, I captured it all via long exposures on my camera. It was a magical way to end such a high-flying day.
On the morning of the final day, we drove north to Spearfish, a town located near the Wyoming border and famous for its beer, scenic landscapes and endless outdoor activities. On the way, we drove through Deadwood, an old mining town (yes, the same Deadwood of the HBO series). It was everything it was cooked up to be: an Old West town with the sparkling lights of casino jackpots. Needless to say, the drive was a total blast from the past.
The plan for the day was mountain biking in the northern Black Hills. Perry, an expert mountain biker and firefighter, was my guide for the day. Not even a second after I met Perry, I could tell this guy was a legend. Several years back, he dug a 50-mile track through the woods with his bare hands – no joke. Now, 20 years later, Spearfish attracts mountain bikers from afar to race along its tracks, especially during the Dakota Five-O. Lucky for me, I was going to ride a portion of it, but little did I know just what sort of adventure Perry had in store. Midway, twisting and curving through the diverse single-track terrain, we took a break at an incredible overlook to see Spearfish Canyon in all its glory.
I’m no stranger to mountain biking injuries, but that doesn’t make my grip on the handlebars any less tight. I took after him with everything I had, over rocks and under logs, through gullies and in the snail-like speeds of mud ditches. Let’s just say it’s hard to beat a man at his own game. Fortunate or unfortunate for me, all my falls were captured by my GoPro. The scrapes that I accrued would heal over the following days, but the memories would last for a lifetime.
After tiring myself out over the 25-mile course, we arrived at a local Spearfish tavern, Killian's, where Kristi, Perry’s wife, met us for a beer. The bar had a rule that, if you arrived on bicycles, you got a discount on your draft. I wish every tavern had this rule. Perry may have been 44 with a pelvic injury but, standing at that bar with a beer in his hand, you could tell he had a lot of years and trails left in him.
We then said our goodbyes and set out on the road back to Colorado with smiles on our faces and, for me, scrapes and bruises on my body. The drive out of South Dakota was bittersweet. I reflected on all the momentous events that took place in such a short time. The trip itself was better than I had ever expected; it left me with a buzzing high and inspired me to come back and experience it again. More than ever, I wanted to spelunk in Jewel Cave, finish the full 50-mile Dakota Five-O trail with Perry, and climb more of the routes in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This state is so underlooked, and yet it contains so much beauty.
As the sun set over the countryside, I closed my eyes, exhausted and at peace, falling quickly asleep as Lauren drove us back.