“Drivin’ in a winter wonderland” *

I’m woken up at 5 am by a hotel neighbour noisily getting up. I guess they’re going to the Buffalo Roundup as well but getting there when the gates open at 6.15 am. Why, I have no idea. I can’t get back to sleep again so get up earlier than planned at 6.05 am. I skip a morning shave to save time and after a shower and quick breakfast in the hotel. Soon I’m driving out of the hotel car park into some light rain and sleet at 7.15 am.

Once out of town, Hwy 16A has taken on a magical Christmas look as overnight snow has settled on all the trees of the forest lining the route. The whiteness has completely covered everything on the hillsides, it looks beautiful. The road is mercifully clear of snow – and traffic – apart from a gritting lorry going the other way. The temperature is only 34º F though, just above freezing, so I need to be careful of road conditions.

Through Hill City and Custer, the winter magic continues. There is low cloud and the sky is a light grey blanket. The white tree-covered hills though stand out clearly, forming a wonderful backdrop to the journey, despite the early hour and the cold. I turn right onto Hwy 87 then left into Custer State Park and onto the Wildlife Loop Road. The road here has narrowed and there are tricky bends and inclines. I’m unsure if the road has been gritted (sanded in US parlance), but it is free from snow.

Snowy roads #1Snowy roads #2Snowy roads #3Snowy roads #4Snowy roads #5

It is an amazing scene to drive through with everything covered in snow. I come out of the forest and into some open countryside. There’s a road block ahead though, and a Park Ranger’s jeep is blocking the road, with a detour sign to the left. There is no indication of what the problem is but the road I am sent up is a dirt track to who knows where. It just goes on and on.

There were no other cars on the road on my way into the Park. I didn’t catch anyone up, nor did anyone come up behind me. Now though, with the slower speeds needed on the dirt track, I’m in a long line of cars, in front and behind me. We’re making good if slow progress. To where, I do not know. At one point I catch sight of a buffalo silhouetted against the sky in the trees.

The Buffalo Roundup

The dirt track goes up, then down, around and around, and eventually over a ridge, a proper road comes into sight. The dirt track meets the paved road and a Park Ranger filters us onto the road and into the traffic approaching from another direction. I ask him where I am going and he says the North car park. I was heading for the South one, so the detour must be because the South is full, or maybe there was an accident.

Which is actually good news because the instructions were to leave either car park the way you came in. I wanted to be in the North because it made the drive this afternoon easier to get to. However Brenda’s route meant I was heading to the South, meaning a longer drive after the Buffalo Roundup. It’s also good because I got to see some of the South Wildlife Loop Road on the way in but will drive the North Loop Road on the way out, so seeing more of the Park. Later on, on the way out, it’s clear that the South Loop is a much nicer drive as well through forests: the North Loop is all open country.

Buffalo Roundup North Car Park

Buffalo Roundup Car Park

I’m directed by multiple volunteers in yellow hi-viz jackets up a hillside and into the “car park”. I’m parked up at 8.40 am. On an open field. So much for the rental rules of only driving on paved roads! 🙂

There is quite a crowd here on the hillside overlooking a flat plain. On the other side I can see the South car park and lots of people on that side of the ‘valley’. I walk about to try and find a good spot, finding somewhere near one of the gates into the Corrals. It’s cold but I wrapped up well and thankfully the light rain has stopped. The Buffalo Roundup is supposed to start here at 9.30 am but I overheard a marshal telling someone it will be 9.45 am. So I wait. And wait. Nothing happens until just gone 10 am when the buffalo herd is spotted coming over a ridge over on the South side. It is though still some distance from the crowds over there.

The Beasts Arrive

Buffalo Roudup North Viewing Area #1Buffalo Roudup North Viewing Area #2Buffalo Roudup South Viewing AreaThe buffalo arrive #1The buffalo arrive #2Buffalo Roundup #1Buffalo Roundup #2Buffalo Roundup #3Buffalo Roundup #4Buffalo Corrals

I can make out the ranchers on horseback who are steering the herd, but they are matchstick figures at this distance. It takes a good 15 minutes before they appear again on the South side. A few minutes later the first buffalo appear on the plain. The horse riders plus some pick-up trucks in support try to guide the buffalo towards the North and South viewing areas. This is where the entrance gates are to the Corrals. But the animals have other ideas and wheel away en-masse from where the marshals want them to go.  Heading in the direct opposite direction! So the riders and drivers re-group, and start to shepherd the herd back towards us.

Unfortunately there are two gates into the Corrals and all the buffalo decide to use the gate furthest away from the South hill. If they had come to the South gate, they would have been really close to us but unfortunately remain somewhat distant. There is also no “thundering sound of hooves” as promised or a “stampede in full flight”. Instead 1300 or so buffalo meander along slowly and quietly, as if on a Sunday afternoon stroll.

It’s all a bit underwhelming to be honest. Sure, the sight of a herd of buffalo is not something one witnesses every day, if at all, in one’s lifetime. But given the pre-event publicity of the “ground rumbling underfoot” as the “buffalo charge at full speed”, I can unequivocally state that was misleading bullshit. So was it worth coming to see and getting up so early for? As I said, it’s a pretty unique event, something I doubt you can see anywhere else, so yes. Was it over-sold? Yes. And there really is no need as far as I can see to get there when the gates open at 6.15 am, unless you want a specific vantage point. I got a great place to watch from at 8.45 am.

To The Corrals

As the buffalo walk towards the holding pens, most people return to their cars and start to leave. Which very quickly creates a massive traffic jam. So there’s no point in sitting in that, I think. It’s 10.50 am and I then recall reading that you could go to the Corrals after the buffalo were safely penned in. There is no information posted anywhere about this so I ask a Ranger. “Get on that school bus down there (about 200 yards away) and it’ll take you there. And make sure you get up on the catwalk.” he says. I had seen these yellow school buses coming and going for a few minutes. And had assumed they were for school kids who were on a field trip to the Buffalo Roundup, and were now being taken back to school. Not so it appears.

I wander down and find a queue of adults about to board the next bus. I get on the bus, which heads off to the Corrals whilst I watch most of the cars sit in an even longer queue to leave. Off the bus in the heart of the Corrals, I walk about to see what’s going on. There are some steps up to a walkway and raised platform, which I go up. There’s also a seating area plus lots of pens to hold buffalo. The animals are currently all together in one large field. On the platform someone is asking a guy on the ground loads of questions.

Buffalo in the Corrals #1Buffalo in the Corrals #2Buffalo in the Corrals #3Buffalo in the Corrals #4Buffalo in the Corrals #5

To whit… the Corrals is the business end of the Buffalo Roundup. They check the health of the buffalo, vaccinate and brand if required, and do other stuff as needed. It all about managing the herd to keep it strong and healthy. I then ask a question and the reply is that nothing will start for another hour or so. “People gotta eat first,” he says. It’s only 11.30 am but I guess the ranchers were up even earlier than me.

Further along in the Corrals I can see a huge marquee. On inspection, there are food serving tables outside and inside loads of people eating. Lunch is buffalo brisket in a bun, baked beans, a cookie and a soda plus coffee. I dither about whether I want lunch now, but remind myself that the car queue to leave will probably last another hour or so. Plus having come down here on the bus, I can hardly see the point of leaving without seeing what goes on here. So I stump up a rather steep $16, get in line, get some food then find a seat in the marquee. The food is good, just expensive.

Action Time

The action starts around 12.15 pm. By the time I return the ‘catwalk’ is choc-a-bloc and I can’t even get up the steps. But it’s just a matter of waiting. When people have seen enough, they depart the platform and soon there’s a slow trickle up and down the steps to get ‘up top’. When I get up there, it’s very crowded. But with some subtle shuffling here and there, I manoeuvre myself around to see all the various activities that take place.

Viewing platformMarshalling into the inspection area #1Marshalling into the inspection area #2Marshalling into the inspection area #3CowboysVet InspectionAnother cowboyBranding machine

It was fascinating. Four buffalo at a time are herded into holding pens where they can be inspected by vets. Some lucky lady is shoving her hand up a female buffalo’s naughty bits to see if they are pregnant. There’s a branding station and various other ‘cow-hands’ check out the animals as they are processed. Once all done they are released into the smaller holding pens. All very interesting to watch but after a while, and having wandered around the Corrals to explore, I’ve seen everything. Time to depart.

The trip down to the Corrals definitely made the Buffalo Roundup experience worthwhile. It was a unique excursion, something I’d never seen before. I still can’t fathom why most people left after the Roundup element concluded. Maybe they’re locals and had done the Corrals before. I find the school bus car park and get on a South-bound bus that takes me back up the hill to a now nearly deserted car park. And no traffic queues on departure.

One consequence that became apparent as I approached the car was that the off-road excursions on the dirt track and on this hill have covered the car in dirt and muck. Loads of it. It is absolutely filthy. I think to myself that there is no way I can return it in this condition, I’ll have to find a car wash later.

Iron Mountain Road

To get back to the hotel I drive on the North Wildlife Loop Road – a nice pleasant drive – and then take Iron Mountain Road. This is part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. It has a reputation. And what a road it is. What. A. Drive. Spectacular scenery, a twisty narrow road, up Iron Mountain and down the other side. Oh how I have missed doing a drive like this over the past week or so! Back to the good stuff… I shall unfortunately be back on I-90 W in a day or so but I can reminisce about this road when back on that.

On the North Wildlife Loop Road #2On the North Wildlife Loop Road #3Iron Mountain Road #1Iron Mountain Road #2Iron Mountain Road #3Iron Mountain Road #4Iron Mountain Road #5Iron Mountain Road - Scovel Johnson TunnelMount Rushmore from the Norbeck OverlookMount Rushmore from Iron Mountain Road

The sky is still overcast and it’s only 48º F but what a superb road to drive on. Tomorrow there should be more I hope. I’m back in Keystone at 3.30 pm and search in vain for a car wash. I pull over in town and search online. The nearest is in Hill City, about 15 minutes away, but all its reviews say it’s crap and doesn’t clean your car properly. Given how much dirt there is on the car, I need a decent, if not excellent, facility. There are quite a few facilities in Rapid City. I decide I will wait until tomorrow, and choose one that has good reviews and is on my way into town.

Parked up in the hotel car park, I go for a walk around Keystone, in part to see where I might eat tonight. Most of the shops are tat bazaars or restaurants, in part I guess because the town – population 309 – is so close to Mt. Rushmore. I stop for a coffee at Turtle Town to catch up on news and email online as I didn’t have time this morning. There’s also some some route planning to do because Maps and Android Auto are screwing up my planned routes. I am resorting to writing the route on paper!

Keystone #1Keystone #2Keystone #3Keystone #4Keystone #5Keystone #6

Out For Dinner

Red Garter Saloon #1

Red Garter Saloon

There wasn’t much I fancied from the restaurants I saw. But around 8 pm I leave the hotel to go Boss’ Pizza and Chicken across the street. Lunch was quite filling and I didn’t want a full dinner, so in Boss’ I can just have a few chicken wings. Some reasonable size wings – I check with the server what size they are – and a good local beer does the trick. Boss’ is however brightly-lit inside like a fast food joint and I did only intend to eat there. So after eating I walk up the street to the Red Garter Saloon. This didn’t serve food, so wasn’t an option earlier.Red Garter Saloon #2

It is not very busy inside, but Jerry Allen and his guitar are entertaining the sparse audience. I sit at the bar and peruse the beer menu. I’m the only one at the bar so I listen to Jerry and potter on my phone to catch up with more news and events. All very pleasant, Jerry finishes his set, I finish my beer – and at 10 pm on a Friday night they call last orders! OK, by now there’s only me and two other people in the place, but still. I pay up and leave.

Keystone at night

Deserted Keystone at night – again

The main street through town is deserted again and I don’t see anyone else walking back. It’s a ghost town! Back at the hotel I do some diary which makes me reflect that after some long days on the road so far, today is why I’m doing the trip.

Today was excellent. It was an early start but to see the snow on the way to the Buffalo Roundup was great, then the buffalo and Corrals, and finally to drive Iron Mountain Road. The evening was OK as well. More adventures in the Black Hills tomorrow.

* Winter Wonderland by Various Artists – it’s really “walkin'” but it is a road trip…

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