Monday morning I went back to Badlands to bird while everyone else slept. My boss had given me the location of a prairie dog town where she had seen a burrowing owl several years ago and I wanted to check it out. The road was right off the main loop, but was unpaved and the slowest, bumpiest 5 mile drive ever. The day before we had seen pronghorns, deer and bighorn sheep, but didn't see bison. I found the bison. Lots and lots of them! I also found lots of cool birds, including a blue grosbeak, a large flock of mountain bluebirds and an upland sandpiper with four adorable, fuzzy chicks. It took me a while to identify that sandpiper because it was so unexpected, being up on a bluff surrounded by cliffs and grassy prairies and no bodies of water. When I finally made it back to my target prairie dog town (which was huge and full of activity) it was full of bison and I didn't want to get out of my car to carefully scope for burrowing owls. I guess when you're a spoiled brat who just saw four owls in one small area the day before, you just aren't as willing to put in the work for one possible owl. Especially when you can't safely get out of the car.
I headed back to Wall and gathered the family for the final leg of our trip- the Black Hills. We said goodbye to our beloved Basement Suite at the Econolodge and headed for Mount Rushmore. We looked at the four big faces, hiked the trail that goes under them, went to the gift shop and saw one of the original drillers who was over 100 years old and was signing books and then left to eat lunch in (I think) Keystone. Keystone was a mini version of Gatlinburg, with a strip of touristy shops and restaurants. We headed to Rushmore Cave for a cave tour and zipline ride. In the advertisements, the zipline appeared to go down a huge mountain. In real life, it was ONE car that went from a hillside to the field below and then they also zipped you back up. The line was probably 2 hours and the ride was way too lame-looking to be worth any wait! We let the kids "pan for gems" with the money we saved. They did the cave tour (that was full of crawls through small spaces I can't handle) while I reconciled the checkbook and entered lots of receipts. We then headed for Custer State Park and the Wildlife Loop Trail. This was probably the thing I had most looked forward to on the whole trip and I was a little disappointed. I'm not sure why, because we saw tons of animals, including huge prairie dog towns, enormous herds of bison blocking the roads, bighorn sheep and lots of cool birds. I guess I wasn't expecting the long, long, winding drives to get there. We were all tired and hungry and grumpy when we finally made our way to the town of Custer and found another tiny hotel room in a Best Western for the low, low price of $130 including AAA discount. We found a small grocery and bought some healthy food for dinner and the kids swam and swam.
I got up early Tuesday morning and headed back to Custer State Park to bird at Sylvan Lake. The lake was much smaller than I had expected, but the birding was fun. I'm still working on identifying one tiny gray-streaked bird that I saw about 10 of. I almost drove off a cliff trying to get a better look at a hawk that turned out to be a turkey vulture. It was a fun couple of hours.
We had considered driving to Devil's Tower to say we'd been in Wyoming, but were all sick to death of driving. We instead opted to drive the ~20 miles from Custer to the Wyoming border, get out just past the border and go back. We've been to Wyoming for approximately 2 minutes! We stopped back in Custer and Gene and the kids played mini golf while I replenished our stock of drinks and snacks. We drove up to see the Crazy Horse monument and then went to the Reptile Gardens. We skipped Bear Country because the temperature was over 100F. We had been warned that hotel rooms would be scarce that night. I would have liked to spend more time at Custer State Park, but Gene and the kids were done with it. Everyone wanted more time at Badlands, so we said goodbye to the Black Hills and did the Badlands loop again. We stopped at our prairie dog town and found 2 of the 4 burrowing owls. The kids did some climbing and we headed east, across the long and boring state of South Dakota. We pulled into Mitchell ~9pm and found a Comfort Suites with a "water park." It has a pirate ship play structure and one water slide, but the kids had a blast. Ironically, this hotel room is BY FAR the nicest AND the cheapest we've found.
Today... Our options are limitless, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve. We may possibly drive home tonight or we may stop at another destination. I'll have to talk to my still-sleeping family.