Welcome to Cave Country: Exploring the Caves of South Dakota

The Black Hills of South Dakota are known for a few things including Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial (insert link) and some of the most beautiful scenic drives in the country. What most don’t know about Western South Dakota is that it is home to not just one, but two MASSIVE cave systems. We took the plunge (see what I did there?) and took tours at both Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, both near Custer, SD. 

Wind Cave National Park

During our time in the Black Hills, we had a day with really bad weather in the forecast so we opted to visit Wind Cave National Park, about 22 miles south of Custer, SD. Arriving at the park from the North, we were greeted into the park by a regularly occurring herd of bison near the park entrance. The Wind Cave herd is one of only 4 bison herds in North America that is relatively pure and walks freely on public land. The number of bison in the Wind Cave herd are 250-400 strong and a large portion of the herd spends most of the summer along Highway 385, near the Visitor Center. It is rumored that the herd will even perform a “South Dakota Car Wash” of your vehicle in the spring if your vehicle is carrying delicious salt on the exterior of your vehicle, by licking the salt off of your car.

Bison grazing in the grassland of Wind Cave National Park

The park Visitor Center is very mild and boasts standard amenities such as bathrooms, a gift shop, and a small naturalists display of wildlife and history from the area. Despite the beauty of the grassland above and the size of the bison herd, the main attraction to the park actually lies below ground, within its 150+ miles of discovered cave passageways. 
The passageways of Wind Cave are unique for a couple of reasons.

First, Wind Cave contains over 95 percent of the world’s boxwork formations. Unlike formations in other popular cave systems that rely on water to drip down the rock and deposit minerals, boxwork was already present in the rock and was simply refined by the water of a once present underground lake. The result, a beautiful lace-like mesh network of sediment that makes Wind Cave one of the densest caves in the world. 

Detail photo of boxwork formation

Second, Wind Cave is the 7th longest cave in the world even though the footprint of the cave system is contained within only a couple of square miles. While navigating the passageways you realize the scale of the cave and how the distance is accomplished, tunnels veer in every direction from the main tunnels and rooms. It is easy to understand why some of the cave is still not explored even to this day. 
The best part about a visit to Wind Cave National Park is getting to tour the caves themselves!

For more information on tours, visit the National Park Service website.

The largest room on our tour of Wind Cave

We chose the Fairgrounds Tour and were really happy with our choice. Our tour guide, Ranger Justin was excellent and had a very well-rounded knowledge of the cave and its history. On our tour, we meandered around the cave, crouching but never crawling, and had the opportunity to see the infamous box formation and multiple instances of frostwork. This cave was pretty tight in some places, so those that get claustrophobic should probably stay about ground. Interestingly enough there was a major lack of the two things that I expected to see in the cave: bats and water. The bats apparently hang out around the natural entrance because food and navigation is easy. Water is missing from the majority of the cave due to the lowering water table and at one point, the entire cave was filled with water.

Jewel Cave National Monument

Different from Wind Cave in about as many ways as two caves can differ that are in the same county, Jewel Cave was a very different experience after visiting Wind Cave. Jewel cave is longer and much more cavernous than Wind Cave. Jewel Cave is also longer than Wind Cave at a length of over 200 miles of discovered caves passageways. The National Park Service hosts tours that allow you to explore different areas of the cave and you can check those out on the NPS website

Boxwork formations line the ceiling of Jewel Cave

The cave was discovered in 1909 when prospectors felt cool air blowing out from the cave and tours began in 1939, hosted by the NPS. 
The geologic features are not nearly as rare as those that occur in Wind Cave, but there is still a few instances of box work and frost work. The most predominant crystal feature on the walls of Jewel Cave is the Spar Crystal. The Spar Crystal formations cover most of the cave that we saw on our tour with the occasional appearance of flowstone, frost work, and box work throughout. We even got the chance to see some “Cave Bacon” which is a cave feature often found in caves in the Eastern US.

Cave Bacon is prominent in one section of the cave tour.

Our tour guide was exceptional and had a deep knowledge (see what I did there) of the cave and it’s history. We took the Scenic Tour that lasts approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes and navigates 723 stair steps. The tour is listed by the park service as moderately strenuous, which translates to easy if you are in decent physical shape. 

Okienomads Travel Tip- Arrive at Jewel Cave when it opens to purchase your tour passes first thing for later in the day, then take off to Hell Canyon (Black Hills National Forest) just down the road for a pleasant stroll through the canyon that lies above the surface of Jewel Cave. 

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Gear Review- Oveja Negra 1/2 Frame Bag

The simple things in life tend to make the most joy. I was skeptical of the usefulness of bike packing frame bags for a long time before riding with my uncle in South Dakota last Fall on his Salsa Warbird equipped with a Revelate Tangle 1/2 frame bag. I had a flat about 20 miles into our ride and my uncle wanted to show off his new tire pressure gauge (also awesome but more on that later), he reached into his frame bag and it was like a scene from Mary Poppins…stuff just kept coming out. He pulled out his air gauge, a Clif Bar, and I caught a glimpse of the rest of his kit stuffed in there and I was a little impressed. That awkward dead space above a traditional bottle case setup was now useful!

I started shopping around using the following criteria: the bag had to be made in a small shop (think not sweat shop), it had to be a spacious 1/2 bag, and it needed to be at least water resistant. I quickly came across my selection, the Oveja Negra 1/2 Frame Bag. Oveja Negra is a relatively small shop in Salida, CO and they make truly cool products in a seriously cool place! 

Below are the bag specification from the Oveja Negra website:

  • Full zip main compartment (drive side)
  • Half zip tool pocket (non-drive side)
  • Hook & loop closure hydration/wire port 
  • Adjustable/removable Velcro® One-Wrap® top tube straps allow for a more customized fit
  • YKK® Uretek water resistant zippers
  • X-pac® VX21/VX42 water resistant face fabrics
  • Cordura® abrasion resistant fabric along tubing
  • MIL-SPEC webbing and binding
  • High Density closed-cell foam padding along down tube
  • Reflective Oveja Negra logo
  • MADE IN THE U.S.A. of domestic and imported materials

Build Quality & Design

The craftsmanship of this bag is really high quality and it shows right out of the box. All of the zippers and fabrics are water-resistant and look/function great! I opted for MultiCam Camo as the color matches my Revelate Designs seat bag, but there are 6 other colors available and if you reach out, I am sure Oveja Negra could whip up something custom. The zippers pull and function as they should and the placement of the zippers is really well-thought out and accessible from the saddle. 

One of my favorite features of the 1/2 frame bag is the high-contrast interior fabric that really stands out compared to the outer fabric and the interior items that you will be reaching for. I was unsure about the bright green initially, but after using it once it made perfect sense!

Extra Touches

There are several pieces of the bag that really set the Oveja Negra bag apart from the rest of the pack. First, it looks really good! The reflective Logo and adjustable velcro make the bag really look good and function well on the bike. Second, the inclusion of a bike pump/tent pole strap in the bottom of the bag is a big deal. My old school long frame pump fits perfectly in the straps. The zippers have covers where they close for extra moisture resistance and there is even a hydration bladder port for running a large bladder in the frame bag. So many extra touches made this bag really stand out. 

An extra large size bag fit my 62cm Surly Disc Trucker really well and the adjustability of the velcro one-wrap makes this bag extremely adaptable for other bikes that I ride including my single speed. I am beyond excited about this bag and after almost 200 miles of use, I will not ride another gravel, touring, bikepacking or commuting bike without one of these bags strapped to it! 

To purchase or see more specs/measurements head over to the Oveja Negra website.

Crazy Horse…a Crazy Monument Indeed

What is the Crazy Horse Memorial?

The Crazy Horse Memorial is an ongoing sculpture, the largest in the world, that began in 1948 to honor Sioux legend and hero “Curly” Crazy Horse. The project, a massive stone sculpture depicting Crazy Horse atop his steed facing East, dominates the hillside of the Black Hills North of Custer, South Dakota very similarly to Mount Rushmore National Monument nearby. Once completed, the monument will stand over 600 feet long and over 500 feet tall, making it the largest sculpture in the world by far. You will be able to fit Mount Rushmore inside of it with room to spare!

Work began in 1948 by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and even though Ziolkowski passed away in 1982, work has picked up in recent recent years with support from the non-profit organization Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. The foundations is a registered non-profit 501(c)3 organization that manages the monument as well as the The Indian University of North America and The Native American Educational and Cultural Center whose vision is to educate tribal youth and the public at large on the history of the Black Hills and Native Americans in general. To read more about the educational efforts taking place please visit the websites for both organizations at https://crazyhorsememorial.org/dream.

Fun Fact- Crazy Horse is historically understood to have never had his photo taken, which might make carving a giant sculpture of his head a matter of interpretation.

Who was Crazy Horse and Why Does He Get a Monument?

Crazy Horse was a famous Oglala Sioux warrior most known for his part in defeating General George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Curly led a fascinating life of pushing the tribal status quo in an effort to protect his homeland from encroaching white interests under the guise of manifest destiny.

The Black Hills in Western South Dakota were designated by the U.S. Government as Sioux land in the Treaty of Laramie in 1851. As long as the native population allowed safe passage of travelers on the Oregon and Bozeman Trails, the land would remain theirs and protected from interference from whites. As is the case with nearly every treaty signed during the plains wars, the US did not keep its side of the bargain and sought gold interests in the Black Hills, despite its sovereign status. 

Crazy Horse fought the encroaching whites for most of his life as needed to protect his tribe. Crazy Horse went to battle under Oglala Chief Red Cloud from 1865-1868 and served  as a decoy in the Battle of the Hundred In The Hands where 81 U.S. soldiers were defeated in an ambush in 1866. Crazy Horse is perhaps most known for his bravery and fighting skill in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Crazy Horse led a group of troops to flank famous U.S. General George Custer. Custer was unable to secure high-ground and was cut-down by Crazy Horse and his troops when it is reported that Custer fired his last shot. 

To learn more about the relationship and similarities between Custer and Crazy Horse, check out the Stephen Ambrose book, Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parellel Lives of Two American Warriors. Ambrose is the award-winning author of Band of Brothers and provides an unbiased account of the converging lives of Custer and Crazy Horse throughout the 1800’s.
Crazy Horse was one of the last of the Indians to be arrested after most of his land and nearly all of the wildlife had been removed from the area surrounding the Black Hills. Crazy Horse was lied to repeatedly as a captive and was eventually run through with a bayonet in a jail-cell struggle. Crazy Horse embodied bravery and courage and generations will look to his memorial for centuries and remember his fight for freedom. 

How Can I See the Crazy Horse Memorial?

The Crazy Horse sculpture is massive and beautiful and arguably the best way to see the monument up-close is to participate in the semi-annual two-day event called Volksmarch. The Volksmarch is a semi-annual hiking event hosted by the American Volkssport Association (AVA) that takes place in the Spring (June 1-2) and the Fall (September 29th). Thousands of hikers flock to the monument to participate in one of the largest volksmarches in the world and it is truly a sight to see. We don’t normally enjoy hiking with a large number of people, but the crowds at Crazy Horse are manageable and not annoying in the way that National Parks can be. 

Admission to the Volksmarch is 3-4 non-perishable canned goods per hiker, as a donation to the local food bank and a $3 hiking fee paid to the AVA Black Hills chapter. Both donations are small and help these organizations in a HUGE way, so we were happy to donate. Don’t pack any water and instead bring some cash in small bills to purchase water, gatorade and snacks from the various organizations fundraising at the 4 checkpoints along the way. The Boy Scouts were marking our tickets and selling goodies and the Custer High School Volleyball team was taking our money for delicious baked goods and gatorade just before the top of the monument. 

Thanks for reading our blog post, it truly means a lot! There are affiliate links in this article that if you click on them, it doesn’t cost you any more and Amazon will send a portion of your purchase amount to us as a commission. Thanks for helping to keep us on the road!

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First Impression: Surly Disc Trucker Do-It-All Bike

This is my initial impression of owning and riding the Surly Disc Trucker. I am not affiliated with Surly in any way. I have been searching for a used version of this bike for a few years and I finally found one in Montana and shipped it across country for a steal of a deal. I will post a long term review after peddling the DT for a considerable time and update with a link here. Although my riding experience is with a 2012 model that I purchased used, I will be using specs from the current new Surly Disc Trucker.

Surly Disc Trucker Overview

Bike tourers have long since flocked to the Surly Long Haul Trucker (LHT) as a reliable, strong, and simple touring bike for excursions across continents or for grocery runs down the street. Surly upped the ante in the mid 2010’s with the introduction of the Surly Disc Trucker, the disc version of the Long Haul Trucker. Similarities abound between the two bikes with the major difference being the braking system. The LHT is equipped with V-brakes and is compatible with cantilever brakes whereas the DT uses a mechanical disc brake system.

The DT is available in 26″ tires for smaller framed riders as well as 700c tires for normal to tall riders. The biggest area that Surly was ahead of the game is what they call “Fatties Fit Fine”, a slogan printed on the side of the bike meaning that larger than normal tires fit this bike. The 26″ version can fit up to 26×2.1″ tires (with or w/out fenders) and the 700c version can fit 700×50 or 29×2.0″. I have fitted my DT with 29×1.8 Kenda Slant Six mountain bike tires and the size is perfect as a do-it-all one bike quiver. I can smash a long gravel ride or ride smooth single track with the same tires. I do have a spare set of wheels that will be equipped with touring tires in the mid-30c range for long tours or dirt road bikepacking without singletrack. The Alex Adventurer wheels that come on the Disc Trucker are solid and have been known to be setup tubeless with a ghetto setup and the right tires.

Components on the Trucker are high quality without jeopardizing the affordable nature of the bike. Compromises were made in places where possible (brake levers and saddle) and solid components were used in places that compromises shouldn’t exist (hubs and drivetrain). Most users are going to replace their saddle anyways as the WTB Volt is truly uncomfortable on long rides. I replaced my Trucker saddle with a Selle Anatomica. Expect a gear review on this saddle soon as it is my favorite all-around saddle for any riding activity.

What I Like About the Disk Trucker

  • The Disk Trucker is Tough- With a steel frame and simple components, the DT is designed to be a rock solid performer in all conditions. Repairs are made easy by the steel frame and widely available and common parts that can be found in bike shops around the world.
  • The Disk Trucker is a Surly- The trucker is sold in tons of countries around the world and is a favorite of tourers traveling around the world for a reason. These bikes last and perform well. Plain and simple.
  • The Disk Trucker is Customizable- Want to take a bike tour of South America? Strap on some racks and panniers and start peddling South. Want to ride some mellow singletrack? Lose the racks and fit a fat-ish tire and get after it. There is very little that this bike can’t do and there is a lot that this bike does really well!

What I Dislike About the Disk Trucker

Nothing. Seriously, nothing. I am a pretty critical person and I can find fault in almost any gear, but for what this bike is, it’s perfect for my uses. Obviously, components can be upgraded to suit your riding style or needs, but the bike is ready to go out of the box. If you expect speed and agility that comes from a carbon race bike, you will be disappointed. If you expect a squishy downhill bike, you will also be very sad. However, if you expect a solid, jack of all trades workhorse, you will enjoy getting on your Surly Disk Trucker everyday like I do.

Thanks for reading our blog post, it truly means a lot! There are affiliate links in this article that if you click on them, it doesn’t cost you any more and Amazon will send a portion of your purchase amount to us as a commission. Thanks for helping to keep us on the road!

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