R&R at The Four Seasons


Is that too many pictures of one vacation for one blog post? 121? I mean, a full 10 of them are of lichen, and there are at least two snowmen in there. I think it’s good, right?

Commence photojournalism spree…

First of all, ya’ll can rest your minds from working out that kid rotation schedule for us, so that we may henceforth camp with an ever-rotating crop of buffers so as to not kill one another. Turns out we’ll be just fine.

Good vacation. In fact, I managed to read the entirety of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared within the boundaries of Custer State Park. It was magnificent. And a good book, too.

We were flying by the seat of our pants on this one, the first expedition sans kiddos since the old honeymoon. Kind of letting the winds blow us where they might, we weren’t sure where we’d land that first night, smack in the middle of Labor Day weekend. Or any night after that.

And then it all just sort of happened. Thanks to Custer’s Center Lake Campground and its Same Day Reservations Only policy, we slid into an unexpected and lovely site without much ado. And well, while the seat-of-the-pants flying was appealing, we never left that fortuitous site.

Settle in, we did.

See that back there? The new tent. Oh, yeah…
See that right there? The riggings. Oh, yeah…

We’d kind of decided that spending our whole 9 days at Custer wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, since there appeared to be so much hiking to do there, and with the advent of the open site, the decision was clinched. As for plenty to do, Custer delivered.

I’m telling you what, though, we had some wild weather. It was 87 when we arrived Sunday night. The beach was hoppin, the campground was rockin, and the new arrivals were sweatin whilst erecting camp. But the weatherman told a different tale for the days to come:

Monday: High of 46°, with afternoon rain turning to snow, Low of 27°
Tuesday: Snow through noonish, totaling 10″, High of 37°, Low of 20°!
Wednesday: Clear as a bell, High of 49°, Low of 27°

Things go up from here, back into more seasonal numbers, but that cold snap was a bit jarring.

While our toesies twiddled in the admittedly brisk Center Lake Sunday evening, the next few days’ forecast was somewhat unthinkable. But we dipped them nonetheless, lest it be the only chance we had for 5 minutes of beach time.

And thus commenced our whirligig tour through an entire cycle of seasons at Custer…

Happy Campers

Monday: True to predictions, we woke to a mildly nippy 46°, and watched the degrees drop off through the day. We hiked the 3.5 miles around Center Lake in varying layers, and enjoyed a nice view for all that climbing. AllTrails says we gained and lost about 500′. Hmm…


I could tell you exactly how far we hiked, and exactly what kinds of elevation changes we went through, but the park’s guidebook and hiking guide didn’t even agree with one another, much less with their trailhead maps, nor with the collective assessment of the AllTrails community or any other online compendium we could find. Forget about the Black Hills National Forest Maps or the Black Elk Wilderness Maps. They only added in more mismatched data.

Brilliant as I am, I thought I might track our miles my own self, so we’d have exact numbers, but the GPS on my phone worked for only the first three minutes and seventeen seconds of each hike, then shut down at its whimsy. Sometimes four minutes and two seconds. Apparently, all those precious resources were more urgently needed to eavesdrop on our conversations and bring us tailored advertisements for Icy Hot and other assorted Old People Gear.

What happens when you’re both trying to get a selfie at the same time. Old People.

Let me tell you, if there is one thing Custer could do better, it’s in the marking and mapping and grading of their trail system. It’s a bit like a blind treasure hunt, with a modest helping of false description sprinkled in for spice and imposed character development. Oy Vey.

On to the Prairie Loop, as the mists loom.

Now, given the previous hike, up and down those Lost Trails, my ankle was already a bit pissy. The ankle likes what it likes, and loathes what it loathes. And even trail with any sort of burnished and smooth incline is a real grump-maker. Too much stretch back there near the Achilles. I love me some rocks and roots and terrain to hop around on, particularly when gaining elevation. My delicate flower feet have needs. The Lost Trails had a lot of ups and downs, and a well-groomed-and-ridden-of-most-rocks-and-roots trail. The ankle was a grump.

But we threw in one more hike, because the Prairie Loop description says, and I quote, “One steep hill at halfway point.” Lies. So many lies. Accurately, we had 2-3 steep hills, for much of the length of the trail. Also, not enough variety for the precious pies. M’ankle was a grump, and so was I.

The rains began in earnest as we climbed into the van; I would be spared any thought of further hikes for the day.

There are no pictures of the Prairie Loop. For it was sprinkly, and the ankle was grumping. Apologies. I’m sure you were hoping for 127 pics instead of 121.

Anyhoo… On the way back to camp, there were the obligatory buffalo, and also a small gathering of Bighorns down at the General Store. Visiting the masses.

By 6pm, 4 hours of rain turned over to snow, and we were fully hunkered down for the night.

Warmth under tarpage.

Day One… a success…

It indeed snowed all night. Tuesday morning, the new tent was in good shape, and had sloughed off most of the load as we slept. She’s a beast!

The Ottinger Riggings held fast, but did not slough. They preferred rather to sag, and that mightily.

Also, a rather large branch came down like a torpedo and impaled our best tarp.

That was sarcasm. It’s the world’s worst tarp, held together mostly with my dad’s gorilla tape. It leaks like a sieve and is a bugger to pull taut. But it’s OUR tarp, and it keeps a somewhat dryish area surrounding our camp kitchen, and we love it. Now we love it with a memorably larger hole than the rest.

After an early morning pee break, I climbed back into the cozy tent to attempt something that looked a little more like sleep than what had happened the previous 8 hours. It was cozy in there. Cold as an ice cube, but cozy.

When I finally emerged, the man had removed the bulk of the snowload from our firetarp, tightened up the lines, and assumed his place at the fire, steaming off the rest of the weight. In his shorts. Because that’s how he rolls.

The snow just kept on comin’.

Seemed a good day for a drive…

I checked the dumpster across the way for snow depth with my little salvaged s’more stick. (Have you met my husband?) It was a little more open to the sky than our site, and possibly more representative of what had fallen thus far. We had 6″ on the ground. Or… on the dumpster, as it were.

Once we got out of the canopy, though, I hopped out of the van to insert said s’more stick into an open field.



See my little friend?

The Ponderosas were doing what they do best, holding the snow like champs, but the still fully-leafed aspen and birch and oak were struggling like me under a portage pack.

Yes, that’s what I look like under load.
Yes. That too.
The poor beefalo had to excavate for their forage.
On the other hand, the whitetails and mule deer had their breakfast of tree leaves delivered directly to eye-level.

Our scenic drive was thwarted by a closed Needles Highway and a closed Iron Mountain Road, but still we found our way out and around to a socked in Rushmore. Just gorgeous out there.

And the remainder of our afternoon was spent dodging Whumps! of snow plummeting from the Ponderosas in camp. Best shot I got was this one aiming for the van.

When you happen to be standing under one of those, you know what you’ve done. All afternoon the forest shook off it’s heavy coat, right up until the temperatures did their own plummet–back down to 20°.

Wednesday, as you might imagine, was a… crisp morning.

We warmed up with a little jaunt around Legion Lake. Frigid.

Then we visited Badger Hole, where Badger Clark holed up and wrote poetry for some productive years. My kinda guy.

Getting warmer…

And then, thoroughly acclimated, with the forests commencing their drip, we headed off for Cathedral Spires and Little Devil’s Tower. This hike was absolutely the pinnacle of our week, but it was hard to capture anything at all in pixels. Too grandiose. Too beautiful. Too much.

Best we’ve got is a few from the top of LDT looking down. The first looks back at a hunk of Cathedral Spires in the background, where we’d just come from.

Sicka these mugs, yet?

We did get some nice shots of lichen, though, just for the Conserve Kid who spent 3 weeks in deep lichen study (Enjoy!):

Also, there was a fat little snowman waiting for us on the trail.

That’s me. I’m not fat. And I’m not little. And I’m not a snowman.

It was hard to tell, after the week was over, if this hike would have been our favorite regardless, or if the Narnia-feel pushed it over the edge. Regardless, it was a magical hike, and a magical day. I Will Take It.

Thursday we warmed up our legs with the short Cairn Trail and then headed up to Lover’s Leap, were stripped down to T-shirts, and I was wishing I’d followed Scott’s lead with the shorts. Long, arduous hike, but the payoff at the top was worth it.

We drove out Iron Mountain again, since it was OPEN, enjoyed tall the tunnels and switchbacks and pigtails, and got about a thousand clear shots of Rushmore and Crazy Horse. And since the feet were not in any mood for more hiking, we explored the Wildlife Loop’s interior a wee bit, van-borne, where we found The Prairie Dog Towns! Oh, happy day!

There’s Teddy, checking old Abe’s ear for cooties for eternity
Mr. Mini Rushmore
Oh. My. Goodness. I love him.

Also, more sheep, and some pronghorns. Lovely, clear day.

Mr. Pronghorn
And Mrs. Pronghorn. Check her horny lashes.

Friday was the day for Black Elk Peak, the tallest peak between the Rocky Mountains and France. Except there was a little bit of a fog issue, what with all that snow still melting at the higher elevations.

So we went back down to camp and relaxed for a few hours while things burned off. Set up my hammock even. Made some progress on my hundred-year-old man’s exciting journey. ‘Round noon, we headed back up to the trailhead and started our own trek.

Black Elk Peak was pretty-darned cool. What A Hike. Yowza. 7 miles and about 2000′ to gain, and then lose, because that’s how hikes work.

Offerings and prayer flags
Pathetic attempt at the view
Scott and Harney Fire Tower at the top

So Black Elk Peak is up there. My bum ankle did mostly fine all the way up, although these old lungs were feelin’ the strain. But about half way down, things started going south in the southerly reaches of the old bod. The ankle was, frankly, done. And the knees twain also tapped out. We took the s-l-o-w b-o-a-t down the mountain, for sure. A geriatric with twin hiking sticks taller than him passed us like we were standing still. I only cried a little.

However… HOWEVER… before the pain, when we got up near the top, we came upon a throng of 12-year olds congregating at the base of the final ascent. OK, they weren’t 12. They weren’t beyond their lower-twenties, though. They were young. And there they all were, regrouping before their descent, to pass around the pain pills. “Ibuprophen?” “Umm… you got any heavy Tylenol?” “Yup, right here…How about you, man? How’s your knee?” “Oh, no, man, I’m good. I don’t hike at all anymore without pre-medicating.”


I, for the record, didn’t fall apart until much later in the game. And I didn’t pop a single pill. I may have been wishing for one–or three–or an epidural–by the lower half of the hills, but I was au naturale, baby.

Do I have to tell you that Saturday was a rest day?

Well, it was. Much time with my hundred-year-old man. Much time in my hammock, and by the fire, and just plain relaxing.

When the feet allowed for movement outside of the campsite, we went out to hunt down the Burros.

Custer is famous for their Begging Burros, a thing we didn’t know when we drove through 8 years ago, and were astounded to be met on the road by hordes of donkeys climbing in our windows asking politely for a little smackerel of something.

Well, those burros had been eluding us this trip, so we thought yet one more trip around the horn was in order. As if ordered up for curbside pickup, the Burros waited for us at the southernmost tip of the Wildlife Loop. They’re almost too much.

Just LOOK at him.
We regarded each other, the donkey and I. And then he nibbled my apple.
Here we have a burro delicacy, leftover oatmeal served on cheap hamburger bun.
And for dessert, half a bag of baby carrots. They burros ate more fruits and vegetables than we did. Did I mention this was our first trip without kids?

As we were mesmerized by the munching mules, the herd–the pack? the gaggle? I think the herd. Anyway, the herd of burros silently moved down the road and were even more silently replaced by the northern edge of a 300-head herd of bison. I turned around to feed my last carrot to a different burro and my new charge was significantly burlier and hairier than he should have been. There are no pictures. We simply backed under the tailgate of the van wide-eyed and wondering if we might be the next viral video on Facebook, and waited for the nearest of the buffalo to pass by. Every other danged person–every car in the burro jam, every hiker, all of ’em–had moved off with the burros. The entire backup cleared; it was just us and the Honda van there in the midst of the waiting stampede.

As soon as there was what seemed like a safe opening, we slammed the hatch, sidled quickly along the sleekness of the Honda, and dove into the front seats, just as the next wave of buffalo began licking our front wheels. They heard about the oatmeal sandwiches.

Still alive, and now pumped full of adrenaline, we felt up for one more hike-free adventure. We returned to the prairie dogs. I set up my new comfy chair and walked it out into the middle of the town, sure that I would make more friends. That last guy, he was as interested in me as I was in him. Only difference was that he didn’t have a camera. I figured his brethren might flock to me if I hunkered down at town center and waited.

I attempted this in several town squares. There was no flocking.

Mostly I was the lone lady in the middle of a desolate flat with thirty prairie dogs barking at her from four hundred feet away in every direction. It was very disenchanting. I’d thought we’d bonded.

Last stop, Mt. Coolidge fire tower, with a great long view of Black Elk Peak, the Badlands, Cathedral Spires, Little Devil’s Tower, the side of Washington’s stony mug, and an in-your-face shot of Crazy Horse pointing right down your throat. That last one is a little startling through the binoculars; he’s a formidable guy.

There’s a road that goes up to that Mt. Coolidge; in case you were concerned. On behalf of m’feet.

Finally, Sunday, we tackled Sylvan Lake and Sunday Gulch Trail. I don’t have a lot to say about them. #1, I think I might have been too tired to appreciate much. #2, I think springtime is the time to experience the Gulch. When the streams are swollen. Just in case you’re planning a trip.

Sylvan Lake, too, I hope is more pristine in the spring. When we were there, she was a little green.

National Treasure, anyone? Somewhere out there Nicholas Cage ran around like a maniac.
Ew. I don’t think Nick went swimming.

We did catch a Mountain Goat on the way out that morning. Just chillaxin’ out by the spires, resting on a ledge the size of my big toe.

You’re gonna’ hafta’ trust me. That white spot is our boy. He was majestic, and not to be captured in pixels.

Even though I was toast, I wanted to stop along the Needles and play where we played with the kids 8 years ago. Thankfully, rocks exude happy juices, and a second wind filled my footsies and inflated my heart. Like a kid on a jungle gym.

Scotty en rock.
Me posing in my traverse of the monstrous rocks. Check the form. Incidentally, we watched The Dawn Wall the other night, and I look basically exactly like Tommy Caldwell.

And then I returned to my hammock to live out my final hours at Custer (and finish my book).

Photojournalistic bombardment complete. See, I even pared a few pictures down for you. Lest you immediately unsubscribe from my blog and run away forever. See how I care about you?

One more, though…

The travelogue wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the lovely camp hosts, Art & Brenda, we had at Center Lake. You know the type… the folks who live on the road and make you wish you did the same. The folks who are too friendly to just sell firewood and clean the bathroom, but take it upon themselves to drop into every site in their charge and get to know everyone. The folks who are living the dream, and you, the lowly through-camper, just might be part of that dream.

You don’t? Yeah, we didn’t either. These were the friendliest camp hosts we’ve ever encountered. We hunted down their fifth wheel, tucked in behind Badger Hole, and left them a little note before we hit the road for home.

We love meeting people in campgrounds. We love the occasional folks with which we manage to keep in touch, and visit for years down the road. And with any luck, the lovely folks we stalked last week will join the ranks of those forever haunted by the Ottinger name.

From Art and Brenda’s Facebook page:

Don’t be judgin’ my chicken scratch.

If you need me, I’ll be dreamin’ of Custer in the snow,

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