Tag Archives: Needles Highway

Badlands Trek: Giant Heads, Magical Caves, and the Ladder From Hell

Guest poster Keith Shaw continues his hiking trip through the Badlands area, encountering spectacular natural and man-made wonders. Did he survive Notch Trail and the ladder? Find out below!

Note: Bolded text is emphasis mine, noting what I find to be particularly noteworthy. I’ve also edited for length and to fix typos.

Day Two: Fun and Frustration

This was a day of ups and downs. It was still cold and overcast this morning, so I decided to see Jewel Cave and points along the way. Hopefully the weather will clear tomorrow as the Main Event is to see and hike Badlands National Park.

I stopped at the Crazy Horse monument, an unbelievable undertaking of converting a large mountain peak into an image of the Indian chief Crazy Horse sitting astride a stallion. It is HUGE. The entirety of Mt Rushmore would be smaller than just the Chief’s headdress. They have the face done and are working on the outstretched arm. This morning the Chief’s head was literally, as well as figuratively, “in the clouds”.

The museum is quite impressive with an extensive collection of all things Indian: culture, attire, artifacts and many photos. Then it was off to Jewel Cave.

The good news is that this is by far the most impressive, fantastic, magical cave I have ever visited, and that includes Mammoth and Carlsbad. The metal scaffolding is new and the trail brings you within inches of the array of bizarre formations. It is a challenging stroll in that it has 792 stair steps spread out over about a mile length, but it was worth every bit of the leg trauma. If you ever find yourself in South Dakota, you simply HAVE to visit Jewel Cave.

The bad/ frustrating news is the cave has virtually 100% humidity, and my camera objected. I tried rebooting, installing fresh batteries, but to no avail. So no photos. 😦 However, I have included a few courtesy of the internet for your enjoyment.

Within 10 minutes after leaving the cave, the camera woke up and behaved itself perfectly. This was most fortunate, as I was having day-mares of having to go out and buy a replacement camera in Rapid City.

A bit of blue sky and sun greeted my return from the depths, so I made a quick decision to redo the Needles Highway drive in the reverse direction before going off to Mt Rushmore. I really enjoyed this experience.

To be truthful, there are spots where the highway is wide enough, and even a few curves with guardrails. BUT, whenever you meet an oncoming car, Murphy always intervenes and selects only the narrowest spot for this to happen. Oh, and I did find the “Eye of the Needle”. Of course it is in a spot where you really have to pay attention to the wheel. I found a pull-off and walked back to get the photo.

My enjoyment of the Needles experience consumed more time than I thought, so it was a rush (what else?) to get to Mt Rushmore. Sadly I arrived just as the light faded, but did get this unusual view of George on the way there.

Keep your fingers crossed for good weather tomorrow so that I can report on the Badlands.

Day Three: Exhilaration and exhaustion

Finally the storms have cleared this morning, bringing sun, blue skies and cool temps. Perfect conditions for experiencing Badlands NP, which is about 50 miles east of Rapid City via I-90.

I always check in at the visitor station to learn about the park, get hiking maps, and discuss the trails with the rangers on duty. I had read about the Notch Trail in several books, considered to be the best, but also one of the most challenging. With due warnings, I decided to try it. After visiting a few overlooks, I arrived at the Notch trailhead. The sign announced,

“Notch Trail  –  Rough Terrain – Wear Sturdy Boots – Not for the Faint-Hearted”

The trail begins with an easy wander along the base of a canyon, until you come to the Ladder From Hell. It is made from 4-inch diameter wood and strung together with heavy cable to form a flexible ladder. It begins at a modest 30 degree slope, but ends going nearly vertical.

Once at the top, a break was needed to get my breathing and heart rate under control. Then the trail gets really scary, very narrow in spots with steep climbs that require both hands and very careful foot placement, along with relying on strong ankles and good boot grip. But the payoff was when the end of the trail comes to the Notch, gloriously overlooking the White River Valley far below, enhanced by a refreshing cool breeze. I stood at the edge watching various hawks and eagles playing in the updrafts. Wonderful!

A safe return was accomplished, but not without very loud complaints from my poor abused legs. As this was going to be the only hike of the day, I exchanged the dusty hiking boots for more fashionable footwear. However at the next overlook, I found that I could barely walk, so I forced myself to walk around a bit to work out the post-trauma cramps. One should never put a horse away wet…

Every overlook brought widely varying vistas. The range of geological formations is truly remarkable. Overall, the Badlands ranks right up there with Death Valley for the most alien landscapes.

A trip to the Badlands seems to require a compulsory visit to Wall Drug Store just to the North of the park. It is a huge sprawling building filled with everything Western and all things Kitsch. What a conglomeration!  That experience was balanced by returning to the Badlands to enjoy sunset at Pinnacles Overlook.

Until tomorrow, my friends.

Keith

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Western Hiking Trek: Narrow Scrapes, Fantastic Caves, and More (Guest Post)

I’m pleased to announce that several upcoming posts will be guest written by my longtime friend and avid hiker Keith Shaw, who is trekking the trails out west. He’s sending email reports to his friends, but the writing and photos are so good I wanted to share them with you all, and he’s given his blessing.

What Keith is doing is remarkable for several reasons. He’s a large person who has no fear of hiking narrow trails that lead to high places. And he’s had some physical challenges resulting in his losing the feeling in both feet. Yet he not only retrained himself to walk again, he’s boldly covering terrain even yours truly the ultrarunner fears to tread.

His three-week trip started in Rapid City, SD (Badlands, Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Devil’s Tower), Scott’s Bluff in Nebraska, then on to explore Grand Teton and Yellowstone and loop back to Rapid City.

A couple of quick notes: the bolded text in his reports are mine – they are what I find to be particularly noteworthy. I may also make minor edits for length and to fix typos.

And now, here’s Keith!

Trek 2017 – Day One

Hello dear friends,

This is my first entry on this year’s trip. The flight into Rapid City, SD was uneventful, but I was a bit tired as I arrived about 1 a.m. and then spent two hours reorganizing everything from travel mode to use mode. BTW, Detroit was something like 94F when I left for the airport, but when I arrived in RC it was 38F and raining. What a difference!

As the first two days are predicted to be rain and heavy overcast skies (read that as poor photography), I decided to visit the two caves in the area and enjoy some of the “stimulating” drives that the mountains so joyfully provide.

Will my car fit?

First on the agenda was Needles Highway. Calling it a highway is a bit of a stretch. While paved, it is very narrow, so when two cars meet, the sideview mirrors almost have to touch, while the outer third of the passenger-side tires are off the road, and no guard rails to the valley below. The Needles are vertical granite spikes, some even with a thread slot in them due to wind erosion. The old tunnels are only one-way, so opposing traffic must take turns. When going through the one shown I think I had 8-10″ clearance on each side of my rental black Chevy Malibu. I saw a pickup truck before me scrape a side mirror, so I was very careful not to follow his example.

This led me down to Wind Cave NP (national park). The overland geography is rolling open pastures with few trees but mucho wildlife. Who would believe that underneath it is the third longest cave in the world? Something like 140 miles of cave trails documented so far, all within ONE square mile of land. The 3D map looks like a ball of spaghetti! It is also the only cave system in the world to have boxwork formations, effectively negative space shapes of dried up cracked river beds. The were formed when harder calcite rock formed over softer limestone that was the original sea bottom. The earth heaved up when the mountains were formed creating cracks and fissures, which then flooded with highly acidic water. The water ate away the soft limestone, leaving the strange boxwork patterns on the ceilings and some walls of the passageways.

Some of the “boxwork”

Leaving Wind Cave via the Wilderness Loop road showed the abundance of said wildlife, with herds of bison (buffalo), elk, deer, and many birds. The final leg of the journey was on Iron Mountain Highway for another bout of enjoyable steering wheel exercise. Sadly, the much-touted scenic overlook at the apex was actually up in a cloud, so the panorama was limited to about 25 feet of distance. 😦

Half a ton of pot roast!

Tomorrow will be Jewel Cave, Mt Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments.

Stay tuned,

Keith