Out West 2015

Badlands & Black Hills

Day 02 - Mitchell to Sheridan

After a long day of driving, Saturday would reward us with visits to The Badlands National Park and Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Even though we were visiting interesting places, it was still a long day with a lot of driving. We had initially planned to stay overnight in Custer State Park, but since the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was in full swing, we decided that we would get away from the crowds and climb into the Big Horn Mountains the next day. The nice thing about traveling this route from Ohio is that the parks and scenery get progressively more and more beautiful.

The Badlands National Park is a rugged, but beautiful scar in the dry grasslands of western South Dakota. In spite of its rugged and inhospitable appearance, the Badlands National Park is a refuge for many wildlife species that we don't see back in Ohio. Notably, wild American Bison and Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep were reintroduced to the park in the 1960s, and we saw both roaming the park in the few hours we spent driving through. We had a small herd of sheep walk right in front and beside of our vehicle while exploring Sage Creek Road.

Bri and Me in the Badlands
GoPro footage of driving through the Badlands and Black Hills (Credit: Steve)

Another animal we don't see back home are pronghorn deer. The Badlands, and for that matter South Dakota and Wyoming, are crawling with them and they're one of my favorite sights out west. Unlike white tail and mule deer, which are very similar in appearance, the pronghorn are striking and look as though they would be at home in Africa. Years ago, settlers mistakenly identified the deer as antelope, due to their resemblance to the species that inhabit Europe and Africa. The name has stuck, and popular culture has perpetuated the name as well; think of Bugs Bunny singing Home on the Range, Kansas' state song.

“Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam

Where the Deer and the Antelope play;

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,

And the sky is not cloudy all day.”

Home on the Range Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)

Pronghorn are actually more closely related to the giraffe and believed to be an example of convergent evolution. This is a where two species evolve traits in different locations, but don't have a common ancestor that share their traits. They have other names as well, but my favorite name, that we learned on this trip, is Speedgoat.

Speedgoat is a more fitting nickname due to the fact that pronghorn are some of the fastest land animals in the world. In fact, they are the uncontested speed champions of North America and arguably the fastest in the world. Arguably I say, because the Cheetah has the distinction of fastest land animal, but by a slim margin, and over a much shorter distance. Top speeds are difficult to measure and claimed top speeds for cheetahs range from 61 mph to 75 mph, wheras top speeds for pronghorn are reported from 55 mph to 60 mph. Unlike the cheetah, a pure sprinter, the “speedgoat” is a mixture of sprinter and endurance athlete, and are able to run quickly over long distances. They're reported to run over 40 mph for a mile and 35 mph for four miles.

After driving through the main part of the park, we continued down Sagecreek Rim Road, which is a well-maintained gravel road that continues through the park and explores more of the rolling prairie hills that run through the park. Along here we got up close with bighorn sheep, stopped at a prairie dog town and some wild bison that were way off in the distance.

From the Badlands we headed directly to Custer State Park in South Dakota. We followed 44 up to Rapid City and then down into the Eastern entrance of Custer. There is a pretty large buffalo herd in Custer, but we missed it on the trip, without much regret, knowing that Yellowstone and its thousands of bison would be awaiting us. While in Custer, we took the scenic drive up Highway 87 through to “Needles”. This drive is beautiful, especially late in the afternoon. It is very narrow and meanders through the Black Hills, which for the record are really mountains. Riding in an open top vehicle or on a bike is ideal as the rocky spires open up over your head and you can feel the openness of the sky trying to extract you from the road you're weighted to by gravity. Seeing the rough roof of each tunnel you drive through makes you want to reach up and feel it with your hands. There are no RV's, buses or commercial vehicles up here, the roads are too narrow and the tunnels that are blasted out of solid rock are much too low and narrow for them to drive through. You can see some of our GoPro footage of our drive through The Badlands and Black Hills. The drive, in my opinion culminates with a ride through a long and narrow tunnel that opens into a cathedral of rocky spires. The low ceiling transitions into a narrow chasm of rock that juts up above you on both sides.

After an amazing day of driving through the Badlands and Black Hills, we headed west again, back on I-90 towards the Big Horn Mountains and National Forest. If I recall correctly, we ate at Pizza Hut, somewhere in Wyoming and drove as far as we could that day. We eventually spent the night in Sheridan, WY where we stumbled, exhausted and grimy, into the Days Inn Sheridan for a night's rest.

The tunnel on Hwy-87 (Needles Hwy) in Custer State Park
Day two, traveling through the Black Hills (Map)
Big Horn Sheep having a snack in the Badlands National Park
GoPro Rig

Prior to leaving for our trip I built, with some fabrication assistance from my neighbor Greg, a GoPro mount that could be mounted to the rollbar of our Jeep Wrangler Rubicon (2008 JK). I had just gotten the GoPro for my birthday, a week earlier, from Bri and our family, so I didn't have much time to test it and play with different mounts. Even though I didn't have it for long, I knew that I wanted to get a camera angle that would capture the drivers perspective, the inside of the cabin and a nice view outside when the top was open. What I ended up with was a rig that could be used with the soft top or hard top and attached directly to the rollbar in a super sturdy manner. I'll post more about the build in a future post, but for now I want to talk about some of the parts that were used. You can see the resulting video in the video above of our drive through the Badlands and Black Hills. There is room for improvement to this design, but I think it worked out nicely for my first attempt.

The rig is made of wood and bolts into the roll bar holes. I have a quick release mount on the rig that allows the GoPro to be quickly taken on and off of the mount. It then doubles an extension arm or selfie stick when detached from the mount. Below are the parts.

GoPro Jeep Rig to the right of driver (me).
Product Notes Image
Too low to display
Obviously having a camera is required. I recommend picking up a starter bundle since they come with extra batteries and accessories, for the same price as the camera.
The Accessory Pro® Aluminum Tripod / Strap Mount compatible with all GoPro® cameras
The camera needs a place to be mounted. This was one of the few mounts I found that were made of metal (aluminum) and were designed to be affixed to something with screws. This mount ended up working perfectly, super sturdy and has a nice black finish that doesn't look out of place in the Jeep.
GoPro Smart Remote (GoPro Official Accessory)
When you're driving, you do not want to be fooling with the camera or your phone (which acts a remote). Having this wrist mounted strap is a must have for driving. After about a day of use with it, it became second nature to control the camera without looking at the remote. Additionally, it came in handy outside of the Jeep as well, and it's waterproof which makes it much more versatile than a smart phone in wet conditions.
Mudder Extension Arm Pole CNC Aluminum Alloy 6.5 Inch for GoPro Action Video Camera HD HERO2, HERO3, HERO3+, Black
The other thing I wanted to do was adjust the camera for a higher or lower angle. Having a sturdy extension arm was a necessity for this. This aluminum alloy 6.5" extension arm did just the trick. It's very light (aluminum) which means less movement when the Jeep is bouncing and it is very strong. Only gripe with this is that it fits very tightly into the other plastic GoPro connectors. Also, this served double duty as a selfie-stick for Bri.
Wasabi Power Battery (2-Pack) and Dual Charger for GoPro HERO4 and GoPro AHDBT-401, AHBBP-401 (with Car and US Plug)
If you're going to be using the camera, you're going to need extra batteries. They seem to only last about 40 minutes to an hour, depending on usage. These batteries provide everything you need to keep shooting while driving in the car. The two batteries (plus the GoPro factory battery), plus the dual charger and car adaptor, meant that we were never without battery power.
SanDisk Extreme 64GB microSDXC UHS-I Card with Adapter (SDSQXNE-064G-GN6MA)
In addition to extra batteries, extra memory cards are helpful. Especially when shooting in 4K or 2.7K, having extra space is a must. Having cards that can sustain writes at 4K is also important. I bought two cards ahead of this trip. This was the cheaper of the two, but I didn't notice any issues with the card loosing frames because it was too slow. (Note: I used the older model, Model#: SDSDQXN-064G-G46A, the item linked is replacing it)
SanDisk Extreme PRO 64GB UHS-I/U3 Micro SDXC Memory Card Speeds Up To 95MB/s With 4K Ultra HD Ready-SDSDQXP-064G-G46A
This was the faster card I bought, worked as intended. Both of these cards were lightning fast, particularly when transfering files over USB 3.0.
Driving through Needles
Bri Overlooking the Badlands
The tunnel on Hwy-87 (Needles Hwy) in Custer State Park
Bri in the Badlands
Heyyyyy! Bri being ridiculous in the Badlands
Rugged Ridge Dash Multi-Mount Phone Kit shot from our GoPro
Bikers riding through the Badlands
Didn't notice these gnomes (fairies?) sitting on the windshield until we got home
Prairie dog belly crawling in the Badlands National Park
Prairie dog winking at us
Grazing Bighorn Sheep in the Badlands
Prairie Dog having a snack in the Badlands
A prairie dog doing... well, prairie dogging
Big Horn Sheep checking out the pronghorn
Pronghorn grazing in the Badlands
Big Horn Sheep in the Badlands
Big Horn Sheep in the Badlands