When presented with the opportunity to take my first Austin Adventures vacation, I raised both hands and said yes with a level of enthusiasm not exhibited since Christmas ’99. Although it had only been a month since I was last in South Dakota, I was pumped just looking at the itinerary and pre-departure materials and knew that this trip would put my August adventures to shame – especially since I would be in the hands of two of the most good-natured guides on the planet. With the help of Carrie and Zach, my five van-mates and I experienced the best of the Black Hills. But to be honest, we also experienced the worst of the Black Hills. Here are a few of my favorite, and unforgettable, worsts.
Worst hike for bear sightings: On the first morning of our six-day trip, we drove to Bear Butte State Park for a three-hour hike on a “failed” volcano. This unique geological formation did not receive its name because it has a healthy population of bears, but rather because from a distance, it looks like a sleeping bear. The significance of Bear Butte as a sacred ground for the Lakota people is palpable – from the ribbons tied in the trees to the signs mentioning the protocol for if you encounter someone on a vision quest. It’s a terrible place for spotting bears, but if you want sweeping views of four states, this is your hike.
Worst bar for avoiding bikers: After hiking at Bear Butte, we drove just down the road into Sturgis. In August, the town’s population of 6,440 swells to half a million during one of the world’s largest motorcycle rallies. Needing to fuel up for a 20-mile bike (as in bicycle) ride that afternoon, we hit up the famous Knuckle Saloon where it seemed like every other patron had a Harley parked outside.
Worst speed trap (for cyclists): We got introduced to our bikes, and their brakes, while cycling down the scenic stretch of road that winds through Spearfish Canyon. For 20 miles, we cruised downhill and topped out at speeds of more than 25 mph. Theoretically, you can go much faster than that, but it would be a shame to fly down the canyon and miss photo opportunities like Bridal Veil Falls.
Worst Kevin Costner movie: After filming Dances with Wolves in South Dakota and falling in love with the town of Deadwood, Kevin Costner invested in the tallest building on Main Street. We ate at his restaurant, Jake’s, and after dinner we visited the second floor to take a trip down movie memory lane. Some of Costner’s most iconic costumes were on display, and it left us asking one question: Waterworld, what was he thinking?
Worst access to WiFi: If your life depends on being online, don’t get on the 109-mile Mickelson trail. We spent at least two hours a day cycling on this remarkable rails-to-trails path that runs through picturesque pineÂ forests and mountain meadows before meeting the wide open prairie. Most of the trail, which features 100 converted railroad bridges and four rock tunnels is on National Forest Land, so if you need internet, you’ll have to take that up with Uncle Sam.
Worst thing to do in a cemetery: Even a guard from Buckingham Palace wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face on a bus tour of Mount Moriah Cemetery. It’s not the grave of Wild Bill Hickok that got us going, it was the bus driver. Cracking joke after joke – all while providing the history of Deadwood and its most famous deceased residents’ crazy Dave had everyone laughing at least once.
Worst shopping mall: On day two of our trip, we drove through the ghost town of Rochford where you can tell that the townsfolk have quite the sense of humor. The sign outside the settlement’s tiny store says “Small of America.” (Nearby, a one-room schoolhouse is advertised as the University of Rochford.)
Worst road to run out of camera battery on: I almost had a panic attack when I realized that my camera battery was about to die on our drive on Needles Highway, the Black Hills scenic byway that twists and turns for 14 unforgettable miles. Incredible, and often ethereal, views are around every bend and at the end of each tunnel. While my battery eventually petered out, I was able to get a few surreal photos of the Eye of the Needle and the Cathedral Spires.
Worst time to be full: Over a steak dinner in the town of Keystone, I was warned to save room for dessert. Two hours later, as I sat down in the Mount Rushmore amphitheater for the evening lighting ceremony, I was glad I had passed on the pie. I won’t ruin that night’s sweet surprise, but let’s just say that Nutella was involved.
Worst memorial: It may not be fair to call the Crazy Horse Memorial a “worst.” But because it’s unfinished and you have to imagine what it will look like when it’s complete and it towers over the Black Hills as the world’s largest mountain carving, it makes the list.
Worst dinner for vegans: Although Austin Adventures does a phenomenal job of catering to guests’ dietary restrictions and food preferences; I would have hated to be a vegan the night we dined at the State Game Lodge. Where else can you sample rabbit and rattlesnake sausage, braised buffalo empanadas, wild boar bacon, hardboiled quail eggs, and elk osso buco?
Worst day to forget your ID: Don’t forget your ID on Day 5! Hanging up your helmet after completing the last 32 miles of the Mickelson Trail is a call for celebration. There’s no better place to toast to this accomplishment than with a cocktail party on the patio at Sylvan Lake Lodge.
Worst ride in the van: It was really hard not to look forward to loading up in the Austin Adventures van. Our drivers made sure it was always equipped with sweet and salty snacks, fresh flowers and herbs and even a library of books and reading material about the Black Hills. Although all the rides were a pleasure, I’d have to say the worst ride was on the final morning of our trip when we left Sylvan Lake Lodge for the airport in Rapid City. It’s true what they say about Austin Adventures vacations. The toughest part is going home.