Scouting for Campsites
After overnighting at the Cabela’s store in Rapid City, South Dakota and listening to the subtle strains of reggae music blasting across the way from a gathering at a nearby parking lot all evening, I set off to visit the South Dakota Air & Space Museum the following morning. After that, I had all afternoon to locate a campsite suitable for a week’s stay.
Truth to tell, I was somewhat intimidated. The Black Hills National Forest is huge, being comprised of four districts. With another heat wave rolling in, my task was to find a workable site at somewhere above 5,000’ elevation. I made my way to the Mystic District Ranger Station for any advice they might have on what areas are highest. They were nice, gave me two MVUM’s and a sheet with a list of rules (like how far to stay from developed areas and water sources, and the maximum distance from roads), but they had no advice about where elevations were generally higher. After I downloaded those MVUMs onto my old iPad to help me know where on the map I was at any given time, and headed in, I soon found out why the lack of elevation advice. The Black Hills Forest is a veritable rat’s nest of trails, wandering all over, crisscrossing and zigzagging like there’s no tomorrow. As far as MVUM-approved roads go, most seem to be cut into the sides of heavily-forested mountain slopes, heading either up or down. There’s no place to pull over to fix a flat tire, let alone camp. The mountains are more or less smashed together, so there isn’t much of any elevation trend for whole areas. If there is a trend, it certainly isn’t obvious.
What I’ve done in the past is to research on the Internet and luck into drycamping areas that have some selection of campsites peppered within. You basically already know where you’re going, so it’s just a matter of picking the “best” individual site. Having come up with only two suggested campsites here during my research, I wondered about the odds of coming up with a workable site in a timely way, and without expending too many gallons of fuel while crawling about. I had noted some online grousing about private land, locked gates, and a general paucity of boondocking spots. Some people consider this hunting process to be part of the fun of boondocking, and they usually write about it with an exclamation point at the end. Then again, some people consider handcuffs, whips and leather underwear to be fun too, so it’s best not to just assume that everyone’s advice will work well for you. There is something about heading in blind that I like, particularly on a trail that tends to discourage more convenience-oriented campers, but I find the process frustrating if nothing usable turns up.
So I made my way to one road off a major highway, and dove in. A mile and a half later, I spotted twin tracks off to the side which lead to a secluded campsite in an opening of the trees. These are all pines, and it seems odd in that they are all skinny, yet seem to be 200 feet high. This campsite seemed workable, being high up with a decent cell signal. It was somewhat sloped, but the showstopper was that the density of tall trees closely surrounding it made solar charging unworkable for a stay of more than two days. Maybe I could find better. Several miles further in, nothing else turned up and I turned around just short of a small ranch in a small valley. Returning to the highway, I went a short distance to take another road in. According to the map, this was a long road serving as a main connector, and camping-approved. But again many miles in, places to pull aside were nil, with the exception of a narrow twin track between the trees that led to a short mud bog darkly shrouded by trees.
The gravel roads themselves are in exemplary condition, unlike your usual fire road of dirt punctuated with deep ruts and holes. They do see traffic, some of it being heavy trucks. After more miles of nothing, though, I grudgingly decided to at least take a look at one of the recommended campsites, even though it was over 50 driving miles away. This was within the Northern District. Fortunately, most of that drive was 60 MPH two-lane through the woods and over the hills. There were quite a few motorcyclists, and I wasn’t jealous when several downpours did their thing.
Once I got within shootin’ distance, it was past 2:30PM and I kept an eye out for a roadside place to catch me some lunch. If there’s one comfort up here, it’s that the franchises have not appeared and killed off the scattered grills, taverns, and such. One place that stood out used to be a small, home-grown classic drive-in. Now, a picnic table resided in each parking spot, and an adjoining auto repair garage had its service bays nicely converted to open air, informal dining. The diner proper had an outside order window. Inside was a short row of counter seats, with the kitchen taking up the right half. Plenty of gleaming stainless steel. Two youngish women worked the kitchen and the outside order window. Me, I sat down and surveyed this establishment’s board of fare. It was kind of the usual, but a “turkey, bacon and lettuce” sandwich struck me as more appealing than the myriad of burger and dog variations. So, I ordered that and, for the sake of maintaining my protein and electrolyte levels, a local beer that I’d never heard of. That was strictly for the sake of my health, you understand. It was good.
The sandwich arrived looking like some kind of Dagwood sandwich, with two formidable stacks of thin-sliced turkey, plenty of fresh lettuce, and an obscene amount of thick, perfectly cooked bacon dangling out. It turned out to be one of those sandwiches that, once you take the first bite, you begin inhaling it, growling if anyone approaches. They seem to have made the bread toast by lightly pan frying it, perhaps in the bacon grease, and oh my, it was all I could do to stop and scrape off for the moment that it took to take the snapshot below. I resented that moment, by the way. Oh, that was tasty. I’ve been around the track a few laps, and that was the best, most satisfying sandwich I’ve ever had anywhere. And one or other of the women often but unobtrusively checked to make sure I was pleased and not needing something else. I can relay a second opinion, too. Some guy came in with his basket for another hot dog, raving about how good it was. I’ve had very good dogs, but this sounded way, way different than the usual, “still hungry, need another”. Fortunately, these two seemed to have a steady flow of traffic while I was there mid-afternoon. The place was named Boondockers.
This place and a common (now uncommon) roadside cafe along a two-lane in Oklahoma made me reflect on how not all progress is good. The individuals running such few surviving places (both women, in this case) are just making their food the same way their parents did when they started the business. To them, it’s just the way you do it, and although they are genuinely glad when you enjoy it, they don’t see it as anything overly remarkable because of the long, long history of preparing it just that way with just those ingredients. We’re now so conditioned to value a perceived time savings that we now prefer to down a boring, chemically-laden “franchise food” meal and go on, rather than emerge with a truly memorable experience. Since we now have a taste for mediocrity while thinking we have gained something, such places as Boondockers are a double treat, and are hard to find. I count myself most fortunate as regards the culinary arts.
Departing with an artery-congealing satisfaction that I suppose only bacon grease can give, I pressed on toward my GPS coordinates. Finally, the gravel road changed to a peculiar two-lane with vintage narrow pavement, the type that’s just wide enough for two Model As to pass.
A smattering of vacation cabins along the way and, voila, the camping spot. It was a small loop in a small meadow, the entry of which was so tightly angled backwards that the Mighty Furd could not possibly make the 160º turn without plunging deep into the high weeds. A pull-off some distance further down allowed the necessary three-point turn, and down into the meadow I went on my return. True to the published description, Hanna Creek rippled loudly next to the meadow, so I took pains to park the required 100’ from it. I was also just short of a road sign declaring a restricted camping area, since Hanna Campground was a half mile further.
Wow, what a campsite! Clear, level meadow with plenty of solar. A rippling brook with a shady spot to sit under the trees. Peace and quiet. Reasonable daytime temperatures when Rapid City itself is baking. The very steep and high forested hills on either side temper most of the wind, too. The bugs aren’t bad at all, and although solar exposure is time-limited by the deep valley location, it’s enough when the ground panels are added to the mix. The dive to get down into it is not for rigs of long wheelbase nor extensive overhang unless you press to one side and have a spotter. For reasons unknown to me, the temperature “swing” here is a full 40º+. That is, if the high one day reaches 80º, you can expect a low of 40º or less that night. Warm and cool fronts can alter that.
But, this being a “published” location, there’s a trade-off. I arrived on a Thursday afternoon and enjoyed the quiet solitude that night. Three cars arrived Friday night at about 10:30PM and three guys set up two tents. Saturday morning at about 8AM, vehicles began rolling in until the place was pretty well packed out except for the tall weeds in the center of the loop. Turns out, it was the gathering of a local gold hunters club. They happily set lawn chairs in the shade, ate and yakked, and a couple of guys panned the creek for gold and scanned the meadow with a metal detector. Then by 2PM, they were all gone. In the evening, four vehicles rolled in and people set up tents. Sunday morning, they also left except for one elderly gentleman with a dog, in an old Dodge van.
He had parked in the shade as close to the stream as he could possibly get. This dog, a nondescript, shaggy black mutt, was silent and showed some grey, and it ambled slowly about. When I emerged from the camper to reposition my ground panels more toward the sun, it toddled over at a pace that underscored the very concept of “leisure”, wagging its half of a tail and nuzzling in for a little appreciation like a long-lost friend. As long as I talked to it or petted it, it stayed around. When I turned away to move a wire, it figured “well, that’s it then, I’ve done my job here,” and sauntered back toward the van.
They pulled out late in the day, the owner pausing to call out to make sure all was well, as in his words, “just checking on the last man left”. Nice guy. That evening, two cars in, with two tents, and both leaving Monday morning. As far as my list of preferences goes, this campsite is impressive. What it lacks is solitude (of course) and a usable Verizon signal, which varies between one bar and “no signal”. GPS: 44.265919, -103.847652.
And just in case you didn’t get enough of the water shots, here’s a 1:39 video at 51MB. The first segment is the creek in camp, while the second and third are simply views while I was on my road hike. If the audio track in it doesn’t make you need to head for the bathroom, nothing will.