Two Families Bicycle the Black Hills, page 3

Page 1: Four Corners to Sylvan Lake
Page 2: Sylvan Lake to Wind Cave
Page 3: Wind Cave to Custer State Park
Page 4: Custer State Park to Rapid City

Thursday, July 1

This was the second rest day of our trip, and unlike our first "rest" day at Sylvan Lake, we decided to truly rest. Our only significant activity was a 75 minute tour of Wind Cave, conveniently scheduled at 3 p.m. to avoid the 95°F heat outdoors. The temperature inside the cave is always about 58°F.

Wind Cave has the 4th longest surveyed length of any cave in the world, with more than 130 miles surveyed so far. Our whole family was excited to see it, so we chose to ignore one of our rules for traveling with small children: no guided group tours. Before our tour we ate lunch at the visitor center, read about the cave's history and watched a movie in the air-conditioned theater. Daniel spent an hour at the visitor center playing with Samantha, a girl he met at Sylvan Lake, and Elijah, the Swiss boy in our campground. By 3 p.m. both our kids had been playing all day and were very tired.

The cave looked great, but Kathy and I spent most of the tour trying to manage our kids. Daniel became a little scared after walking down more than 300 stairs into the dim cave, so Kathy carried him a lot. Maggie wanted to run dangerously in the cave, and screamed or cried loudly if I held her hand or picked her up for safety. I think the tour guide might have rushed our group through the cave to be done with our kids.

Waking up at Wind Cave.

Dave considers the merits of white gas versus isopropane stoves while Kathy cooks perfect pancakes on our isopropane stove.

Michael and Maggie do their morning stretches.

Daniel and Samantha swap stories at the Wind Cave visitor center.

A park ranger explains the history of the cave beside its only known natural entrance (the hole behind her and to the right.) Cold air was rushing out of the opening, keeping us cool during her talk on a hot day.

Steps on the long, winding stairway down into Wind Cave.

Many passageways were narrow.

"Boxwork" hangs from the ceiling. This mineral formation is common in Wind Cave, but extremely rare elsewhere.

After our tour we got more relief from the weather, this time from a short thunderstorm. We cooked dinner under a small shelter, but the kids wouldn't eat it - they just splashed around in puddles. Some of the dehydrated meals that Kathy makes taste great to me and her, but Daniel and Maggie won't eat them (tonight's recipe was Chicken Pot Pie.) Eventually we figured out that they were willing to eat oatmeal, so we cooked some instant oatmeal, fed the kids and put them to bed. We all need rest for a long day of dodging bison on the road tomorrow.

Riding back to our campground.

Friday, July 2

Distance: 33.4 miles
Riding time: 3 hours, 26 minutes
Average speed: 9.7 mph
Maximum speed: 42.3 mph

We all rose early this morning attempting to beat another day of 90°F+ heat, but Dave and Allison were more efficient and left camp at 8 a.m., while our family didn't roll away until 9:30. Before we left Elijah came to us with his parents Nicolas and Patricia to say good-bye to Daniel. He was sad to be leaving his new American friend. Nicolas was planning to stay in Custer State Park tonight, just like us, so I told him which campsite we had reserved.

Custer State Park is known for its wildlife, and the main road in the park is called the Wildlife Loop. Our ride felt like a safari, but without the protection of a Range Rover. The first group of bison that we saw was resting about 100 yards to the left of our road, and we had to slowly climb a hill to pass them. As we approached Kathy whispered, "Daniel, be very quiet, we don't want to startle the bison." He cooperated very well. I was breathing really hard as we climbed the hill, but not because of the steepness. Bison are intimidating, and Kathy and I were tense. The other wildlife was just as plentiful but less intimidating. Pronghorn antelope, deer, prairie dogs and mules were in groups throughout the park, often right beside the road. We didn't see any elk, the most skittish of the large wildlife here, but our family sees plenty of those in Colorado.

Riding out of Wind Cave National Park in the morning.

Prairie dogs and antelope in Custer State Park.

As we crested one hill near the southern end of the park we saw that our ride was going to get tricky. In the valley below was a herd of a couple hundred bison, many of them calves. They were right next to the road, just beyond a barbed wire fence and cattle guard that crossed the road. Several people were watching the bison from the safety of their parked cars. "Let's just go," said Kathy after we had paused for a few minutes. "Maybe they are so busy watching the cars that they won't notice us."

Kathy was wrong. Right as we approached the cattle guard a cow bison with a calf stood up, snorted at us, stomped her hoof and flapped her tail. We did a U-turn and quickly backed away a couple hundred yards. Soon a minivan came down the road, so I waved down the driver and asked her to drive beside us past the herd. That was a nervous ride since we could see all the bison watching us, and some trying to walk towards us. Our bike must look like a threatening animal. At home our bike often spooks horses, so I'm not surprised by what the bison did.

A few miles later we saw about a dozen bison just 10 to 20 yards from the road so we tried to ride past quickly and quietly, but right in front of the bison Daniel yelled, "Daddy, stop the bike! I dropped the valve to my Camelbak (hydration backpack)! Stop, stop!" So I stopped the bike, Kathy walked back to grab the valve, and then we pedaled out of there as fast as we could. Daniel's timing was very bad, but the bison didn't seem to care. The ones closest to the road had no calves.

We took a long afternoon break at the park visitor center, where we were welcomed by a Coca-Cola truck driver. He was there to refill the vending machines, but thought that a family biking through the park together deserved some free beverages, so we each got to pick a cold drink. We'd been wishing for a cold drink ever since his Coca-Cola truck passed us earlier in the day. We arrived at our campground late in the afternoon after countless steep hill climbs. Right inside the entrance was a playground and a pond with a beach, and there was little Elijah waving and yelling hello to Daniel. Nicolas had found no available campsites, but stuck around for a while to give Elijah a chance to see us. We invited them to share our campsite with us, and Daniel and Elijah splashed in the pond together before we all went to set up our tents. Kathy and I want to visit Europe in a couple years, so it was fun to have dinner conversation with some well-traveled Europeans.

The hills we rode today were as difficult as any day of this trip, and more difficult than I ever imagined before this trip began. I'm amazed that we've biked up these hills so well.

Taking a break to consider how to safely pass a bison herd.

Bison with calves along Wildlife Loop Road.

Touring Custer State Park's Wildlife Station visitor center, which was originally a home for the park's caretaker.

Maggie and Damian play in Coolidge Creek, right next to our campsites.


Page 1: Four Corners to Sylvan Lake
Page 2: Sylvan Lake to Wind Cave
Page 3: Wind Cave to Custer State Park
Page 4: Custer State Park to Rapid City