2015 Black Hills Trip
"Great Faces, Great Places" Mount Rushmore in the morning sun.
Just another Lindsay and Baolu vacation trip report -- only this time there
something Great Northern Railway-related! You'll have to read through to the
end, though. Enjoy!
Monday, June 22
It's a beautiful day as we set out by taxi to Sea-Tac. Lindsay and Baolu are
splurging and flying United First Class to Denver with a connecting puddle
jumper to Rapid City, South Dakota.
The plane is full as we climb past 10,000 feet when the flight attendants
finally come around. Bloody Mary's (three of them.... or was it four?) for me
and wine for Baolu. Lunch is a chicken sandwich with some sort of gouda cheese.
It's pretty good! (Anything is pretty good washed down with 3+ B.M.'s....)
At Denver, our connecting flight is at the opposite end of the 100-gate B
Concourse. Those moving sidewalks come in handy. We arrive at our gate just as
boarding is starting. It is a short flight to Rapid City where we pick up the
rental car (a white Mazda 3) and our checked bag. Dinner tonight is Qdoba, a
fresh-Mexi chain neither of us had tried before. Not bad! Might have to sample
them again at home.
20mph in a deserted downtown Rapid City -- that's slow, baby!; Our rustic
hotel, the Howard err... Alex Johnson.
We are "camping" tonight at the Hotel Alex Johnson in downtown
Rapid City. Parking is complementary at a nearby parking garage -- a fact not
mentioned on their website, which is a nice surprise. Very rustic/informal in
the lobby with lots of wooden beams, almost Tudor style. The not-so-nice
surprise is our room which contains one tiiiny little single bed (I had ordered
two doubles). Hmpf. Back to the lobby we go. The clerk asks which room we're in.
"419", I say. Light bulb goes off over clerk's head..."Ohhh, THAT room....it IS
a double.". "No it's not.", I say. "It is one small bed that dead ends into
either a closet or the bathroom."
The clerk explains that you have to go THROUGH the bathroom to get to the next
room. Sure enough. We open a door and find the next bed. We have two small rooms
which share a shower and toilet. Wash basins are in each room. And the entire
deal is wrapped completely around a bank of elevators. We will listen to the
"Bong!" of the lift all night long, as people visit our floor. It is extremely
boonie in here. There are pigeons roosting outside each of our windows. There is
practically no water pressure in the shower or sinks and the closets are very
musty. Neither air conditioner does much more than rattle and dispense lukewarm
air. We are indeed roughing it.
Tuesday, June 23
There is actually a Starbucks right in our hotel, so breakfast and Baolu's last
decent cup of coffee takes place here, the next morning. After checking out
(with great reluctance, of course), we stop off at a local grocery store for
sandwiches and "some nice, fresh fruit" for our journey to Wall, South Dakota.
Posted speed on I-90 thru South Dakota is 80 per. I'm envious; Does this
rental car really do 160 mph?
All along I-90 are these signs advertising Wall Drug; The promised land.
Tourist schlock heaven!
At the Wall Drug gift shop, we buy lots of trinkets and
baubles. There is also a gold store across the street where Baolu does some
serious bling acquisition.
#1: Entrance to Badlands National Park; #2: Orange
contrasts very nicely with the Badlands; #3 You can see the various levels of
sediment of the ancient seabed; #4: Baolu, Badlands and a Mazda 3.
We take a leisurely drive westward through the Badlands, stopping at their
Visitor Center for more trinkets and to munch our lunch with a great view of the
eroded formations. We are struck by how GREEN everything is in South Dakota. It
turns out they have been having one of the wettest Junes on record -- in fact we
are dodging rain showers during the whole trip.
In late afternoon, we find ourselves back in Rapid City and have a late
lunch/early dinner at the local Chili's. Their sizzling fajitas are just as good
The next stop is the Black Hills Gold factory tour, just south of Rapid City.
The tour explained how something can be called "Black Hills Gold". The gold is
not necessarily from South Dakota, but the gold must be made into something (a
necklace, a ring, earrings, etc.) in the Black Hills area. Wiki has a good
Also Black Hills gold is known for mixing silver and copper
with gold to get 3 distinct colors and patterns of their gold jewelry. The
Legend of Henry Lebeau explains how this came to be:
The tour was pretty interesting as we saw how the workers
created the various jewelry and worked with the gold using something called
"lost wax castings" -- something model railroaders are familiar with in their
The most impressive bit of the tour was when they told us the new factory
building we were standing in, was completely paid for by -- gold dust vacuumed
up from the carpet of the OLD factory! Unfortunately --- no free samples on this
tour --- gold dust or otherwise.
Done with the gold hype, we set off the short distance to the Best Western Iron
Horse in Hill City, SD. Ahhh this is more like it. A/C that works. Gutty
complementary breakfast. Nice big beds. No pigeons.
After check in, we drive over to the nearby Black Hills Central (BHC) "1880's
Train" depot and purchase tickets for the 10am train this coming Thursday. I get
some GOOD (sunny, low light) shots of the evening train coming into the depot
from Keystone, SD.
#1: BHC #63 (EMD GP9 blt for C&O in 1956);
#2: BHC #110 (Baldwin 2-6-6-2T built 1928);
#3: BHC #112 "Oreville" (American Car Company blt 1913 for Oregon Electric -
used on Pacific Great Eastern Ry. in British Columbia. All pictures taken in
Hill City, South Dakota.
#4: BHC #144 "Redfern" open-air car;
#5: BHC "Blue Bird" arch-window car;
#6: BHC "Edward Gillette" arch-window car.
All pictures taken in Hill City, South Dakota
Wednesday, June 24
At the airport Monday, we discovered our rental car has a pass to the Mount
Rushmore parking garage ($11) good until December! Nice. Passing the good karma
forward, we leave this in the car for the next person.
After a hearty breakfast with the elderly crowd, we are off, first thing to
Mount Rushmore. We arrive about 8:30am and get our pictures taken. Beautiful
blue sky. In the cool, shaded pine forest, we take the little half-mile long
trail for a different view of Mount Rushmore.
#1: Presenting...Mount Rushmore!; #2: Looking faaaabulous in the morning
light; #3: Baolu meets four Presidents at once; #4: Christmas card picture!
#5: Baolu heads down the "President's trail"; #6: Just a
peek at Washington; #7: The four big guys from down below.
We are finished about 10am just as the clouds roll in along with all the old
ladies on bus tours. Morning is definitely the time to get the best, well-lit
pictures! Driving off, you get the profile picture of George Washington along
#8: close up of George and Thomas; #9: close up of Theodore
and Abe; #10: Washington's profile from the highway.
Next, we enter Custer State Park ($15 for 7 days). We stop at Sylvan Lake for a
nice walk along the shoreline. There is this oochie rock opening you walk thru
with big boulders above.
#1: One lane Hood Tunnel in Custer State Park; #2: Sylvan
Lake; #3: Baolu and; #4 Yours truly.
#5: Rocks and lake shore; #6: just room enough for one
person; #7: Saw this in the parking lot -- a Great Northern fan who likes the
eastbound Fast Mail, perhaps?
It is getting towards lunch time, so we leave Custer S.P. behind and head for
Custer, SD!. The "Bavarian Inn" restaurant we intended to chow at is only open
from 4pm to 10pm. This seems to be the case with every steakhouse we try to
visit. Must be a law -- no steak-eating for lunch in South Dakota.
We wind up having a buffalo burger at the "Dakota Cowboy". It seems like there
are lots of local's cars parked outside, so this must be a good place.
Our waitress comes over and appears to have just woken up from a long winter's
nap. When we order items off the menu, she seems confused and troubled. Like she
had never HEARD of those entrees before. I turn the menu around facing her and
point to the items we want.
I order ice tea with a slice of lemon. Apparently this is NOT standard operating
procedure. "Oh, we usually serve our ice tea with an orange slice....". I
manage to convince her gently that lemon is a good thing too.
Sure enough, she brings round the iced tea with lemon and some water. There is a
long pause. She seems to have disappeared. Just when we're about to give up
hope, she appears with our deep-fried mushrooms. "I've just put your order in",
The burgers finally come out and after the gal leaves I realize there is no
ketchup or mustard. I pull a "Dad" and head over to where she is sitting in a
booth and ask for those condiments. Much better. The burger is adequate for both
of us and quickly masticated.
#1: Flintstones, meet the Flintstones...; #2: That's my
Wilma and the Bedrock City Gift Shop!
Lunch taken care of, we saunter over to the nearby "Flintstone's Bedrock City
and Campground". Lots of sign pictures and the gift shop even has a shirt in my
size! I love old cartoons (pre-1970, that is).
Next stop is just outside town to Jewel Cave National Monument. The parking lot
is rather empty. As we reach the ticket line we discover there are no tours
available until 2 1/2 hours later. I attempt to purchase tickets for tomorrow.
No can do. You have to purchase them on the DAY of your visit. So much for this
hole in the ground.
#1: What buffalo?; #2: You mean this little critter here?;
#3 & #4: "If I had four legs and went 'hee-haw', what would I be? Why uh, you'd
be a jackass!".
We set out for the highly-touted "Wildlife Loop Road" back
over in Custer S.P. Not much wildlife unless you count the prairie dog town and
various donkeys blocking the road. Miles and miles of beautiful green rolling
hills -- with not an annimule to be seen. It's a fake! We've been suckered in!
Thoroughly underwhelmed, we turn onto the main highway and sitting before us (on
the future site of the Custer State Park Visitor's Center) is a heard of
buffalo! I would like to be around when they start construction and have to
convince these oversized creatures to vamoose.
#1 Future Visitor Center site - bison not included; #2:
extended families of buffalo; #3 photographic proof that Baolu has seen a
buffalo; #4: Close up of the shedding beasts.
Of course, there's always one clod (from Missouri, this time), who has to ruin
everyone's pictures by walking right down to the buffalo herd for a closer look.
Unfortunately, it is too warm for the beasts to get up and attack the guy, but
he eventually saunters back to his mobile home and we photograph bison to our
Famous Presidents may have stayed here, but Lindsay and Baolu used the
#1: Aptly-named tunnel, bolted on for your protection; #2:
Will my rental car really make it thru there?; #3 the light at the end of the
tunnel; #4: An SUV squeezes through.
Leaving the smelly, cow-pied pasture, we set out again on the "Needle's
Highway". It is very cool. Boonie, one lane tunnels and mobile homes are banned
on this road (they wouldn't fit thru the tunnels anyway).
Sun shines through the Needles Eye
The highlight is the "Eye of the Needle" where we luck out and get the sun
shining through the gap in the rock. Kick shot. If THAT isn't a good omen, I
don't know what is.
As we stand underneath the granite spires, someone actually comes up to me and
asks, "Where is it?". I told him he was standing right in front of it (there's a
big sign at the bottom explaining what you're seeing). These people find
Sitting in the amphitheatre waiting for darkness and the show to begin;
George, Thomas, Teddy, Abe lit up at night. Pretty scary, huh?
After an early supper back at the hotel, we set out for the evening's program at
Mount Rushmore. As we're sitting waiting for the movie to begin, nature provides
a fantastic lightning show - right over the monument - as we sit there in the
drizzling rain. After the presentation, they light up the heads on the mountain.
I had read they do a laser show as well, but I guess I was wrong. Nature (which
is trying to kill us) did a pretty good job with its own "thunderbolt and
lightning, very very frightening me (Galileo!). We were actually lucky they
didn't cancel the show. Back at the hotel, we have a late-night pizza (room's
got a microwave) and a very nice bottle of "Three Rednecks" wine from the local
Thursday, June 25th.
#1: Nicely-restored CNW caboose 10800; #2: Cab of CB&Q #
620 (2-8-0) adorned with Pennsy 1880 keystones and a Pennsy "Hill City" keystone
sign; #3: BHC Whitcomb switcher #1 built 1940; #4 Engine 110, the 2-6-6-2T
letting off steam.
A leisurely breakfast at the hotel, then check out, and off to the Black Hills
Central Railroad (also known as the 1880 Train). We are riding on the first
steam train of the day leaving from Hill City to Keystone. I wander around a bit
for a few photos, then back in line with Baolu.
#5: #110 backs down the lead; #6: #110 moves up the siding
to replace the diesel; #7: crowd shot (our train was FULL) at the Hill City
depot waiting to board; #8: Roundtrip tickets to Keystone, South Dakota.
We have a full train but we are towards the front of the line and nab some
choice seats in the last car. We depart more or less on time, but just outside
Hill City our engine 110 slips on the wet rail and stalls on a steep hill.
Carefully, he backed down laying sand, then gingerly walked up the hill with the
7 cars in tow (7 cars is the limit the engine can pull, even on dry rail). It is
a beautiful ride through the piney woods. We see deer and beaver along the way.
#9: Engine 63 (the EMD GP9) pulls the train in from
Keystone; #10: Baolu and Lindsay selfie onboard; #11 & #12: Riding along in the
Arriving at Keystone about 45 minutes later, the locomotive swaps ends and I
watch them couple 110 onto our car. We are now in the first car behind the
engine and we'll get some fantastic and LOUD stack talk on the way back to Hill
City. (I grabbed a pair of ear plugs for Baolu from the overhead Safety Kit.)
#13: Engine #110 running around our train; #14: Bending the
iron (throwing the switch); #15: Coming back onto the train; #16: Coupled up and
ready to pull back to Hill City.
It is another scenic ride back to Hill City listening to the throaty steam
whistle of 110 blasting for each crossing. Baolu points out a little 3 year old
boy with his engineer's hat and red bandana across the aisle just totally
engrossed in the whole experience.
#17: Crossing Battle Creek on the climb out of Keystone;
#18: Whistling (LOUDLY) for the crossing; #19: Past a little rock formation;
#20: The rest of our train heads upstream.
Back in Hill City, we take our lunch at a nearby eating place (wonderful, HUGE,
country fried steak for me). Next we head to Lead/Deadwood for the evening. Up
to this point we had been dodging rain storms all trip very nicely, but out on
US 385, the heavens open up and we trundle along at reduced speed through a
downpour all the way to the Marriott (posing as a SpringHill Suites) in
#1: Welcome to Deadwood!; #2: Eat some mud!
Deadwood is a sea of mud. They are rebuilding the only road through town and
traffic is one way through the sticky goo. Attempts to drive thru the "tourist
part" of town are thwarted as we arrived just as they've closed the street for
the 4 o'clock "Shootout" (Wild Bill Hickok re-creation and all that jazz). Hell
with that. We head back to the bar for a very nice "Black Box" cabernet wine
tasting and get comfortably numb.
Dinner is early (just us and the Geritol set -- you've never seen so much white
hair) and delicious in the adjacent casino's restaurant. We watch a CANADIAN
FOOTBALL game (Ottawa vs. Montreal, I think) on the bar TV and revisit
Thoroughly soused, we stagger back to the room for some TV and shuteye.
Friday, June 26
After a decent breakfast, we leave The-construction-zone-known-as-Deadwood and
set off for Sturgis. No, neither of us are motorcycle crazy. (http://www.sturgismotorcyclerally.com/)
Today, we are visiting Loren Charnholm's Great Northern caboose, the X-26!. This
style of caboose is my favorite. GN's first all-steel caboose series X1-X30 with
a "slanted" cupola, it was built in 1959 in GN's Saint Cloud, MN shops.
#1: Loren Charnholm and his X-26 caboose; #2: Interior of
caboose - note side steps to be attached later along with a genuine caboose
stove!; #3: View of cupola area; #4: Watch for slack action!
#5, Another view of X-26; #6: side view of X-26; #7:
conductor's table & spotlight.
We have a nice visit with Loren and his wife Aida before we have to leave to
catch our flight home.
As we come into Rapid City, we see this billboard along I-90 for the Hotel Alex
Johnson that says, "Experience rustic charm with modern conveniences". I'm sure.
The only modern convenience is that they take credit cards. The rest of their
ambiance is strictly 1930's Skid Road.
Lunch is a quick stop at "Popeyes"
http://popeyes.com/ (Yum - Yum!), then it's off to Rapid City Regional for
the flight home. Out of Denver, my dinner comes with four Bloody Mary's (I turn
down #5 from the attendant...bless his heart). Home by taxi aaaaaand we're done!
Another Christmas card picture?
Baolu and I had a great time playing tourist in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Also...a big shout out to Loren and Aida Charnholm for sharing their caboose and
being such good hosts. Thanks guys! See you in Minnesota....(for the GNRHS
convention)...but THAT'S another story.