Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sundance Campground Black Hills National Forest

by Lenice Basham, PairADice Mules, Belle, Mo.

A group of us head to Wyoming to trail ride every year the week before Jake Clark Mule Days.  For the last few year, we have been camping near Buffalo, WY.  In January we make our reservations through the government recommended website.   Then, we dream until spring of the snow melting away and our arriving in Buffalo for a week of beautiful trail riding. But – as some of you may remember, last summer was not a typical summer.  It turns out – the week before we are scheduled to leave (in June) that the campgrounds are still covered with snow, too much snow to get a truck and trailer through the gravel road that leads to the campground.  However, the campground isn’t closed so there will be no return of your reservation money.  If you can get there – you can camp there.  Huh!  Oh by the way, the government person tells me, we are moving that campground and if you do get there you will get to hear heavy machinery the entire time going by the campground.  Again – the campground isn’t closed – it was my choice to make the reservation.  So – we begin looking for another camping area.  Oh – I forgot to mention that the entire equine world is in a case of equine shock over the horses that got sick at the reining show and have now “infected” the entire equine world (EHV).  There was much discussion between us and our veterinarian over whether we should attempt to even go to Wyoming.  Remember – this was all a really, really big discussion nationwide.  Jake Clark said he was having his sale/rodeo.  Loren decided we were going.  Another discussion occurs about whether or not to go camping ahead of time.  The travel limitations have now put a big hitch in any plan to trail ride the week before in a state other than the one listed on our health papers.  To enter Wyoming, our health papers need to list Wyoming as the final destination and we must arrive within two days of the date on our health papers in order to be allowed in to Wyoming.  So the hunt for camping continues…
After an exhausting couple days of planning, Tim and Sheila Cross find a small campground in Wyoming that has an available reservation for five horse trailers.  We settle on the Sundance Campgrounds in the Black Hills National Forest.  Sundance is a 50.3 mile system in the northern portion of the Black Hills on the Wyoming side.  The area was founded in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s by miners and homesteaders.  The camp was new in 1996 and updated in 2006.  It has a ten campsite camping ground.    There are corrals for your mules.  There is water available and trash pickup.  For the low price of $16.00 per night – we were set.  It does sound ideal (and available).  Due to a scheduling issue – the rest of our group arrives to the camp ground 12 hours ahead of us or so.  They arrive during the lighted section of the day – we arrive in the dark section of the day.  The campground details that I should have looked at are as follows:  The average size of a parking spot is 11’x52’.  Some of the horse pens are tie stalls.  You are also assigned to pens/stalls based on which parking spot you were parked in. 
The campgrounds are adequate for camping.  There are hydrants for filling water buckets.  There were some fire rings.  There were some picnic tables at some of the campsites.  There is a handicap loading ramp for disabled riders. There is a restroom available. The horse pens that were really pens were solid, sturdy and safe.  We ended up putting up a corral in a bag so that all of the mules could be in a real pen rather than a tie stall.  (I do not consider a tie stall adequate.) 
The trail head is at the backside of the campground.  There is only one way in and out of the campground in order to hit a trail.  So, every day you must ride up the same couple miles to hit an alternative trail.  The first couple days it is pretty – but then you really wish there was a second alternative.  The trails are marked but sometimes it is easy to lose the trail and find yourself on another trail not knowing which trail it is.  You will definitely want a map and stay on the map trail.  The trails lead through densely forested canyons and open rides.  The elevation on the trail is between 4600 and 6200 feet.  There are some nice streams to cross when you are riding at the bottom of the mountain range.  It is very pretty and very calming.  There was very little other traffic and I don’t think we ever met anyone else on horseback.  The first day we were camping there was a 5K race up the trail head from the campground.  I was impressed with the people who were willing to walk up the mountain to see mountain flowers.  The trail is steep with many switchbacks and large log steps going up.  I tried to hike it one day and didn’t make it nearly as far as some of the elderly people with walking sticks that hiked up it.  I am blaming the elevation on my failure to make it the entire 3.2 miles. 
We rode three days and had three different types of trails once we made it to the top of the mountain.  We did not see much wildlife but it may have been the fact that we are talkers and could have scared them off.  There are some beautiful overlooks.  The trails were moderate in skill level.  The trails are all non-motorized which was great.  There wasn’t anything that was difficult on mule back.  We had lunch out on the trail each day and it was beautiful.  The weather was pretty good with a coat in the morning and sweatshirt only in the afternoons.  We did ride through an area that had been a part of the Sundance Fire in 1936 which burned 8200 acres.  There is still some evidence of the destruction from that fire.
It rained the last day we were there with terrible lightening.  We quickly headed back down to the trailer.  I would recommend keeping a close eye on the weather if you go – it seems to change quickly. 
We ventured out in the community one afternoon, taking in the Devil’s Monument which is less than an hour drive and the Vore Buffalo Jump which is within 30 minutes from the campground the other direction.  The group that I was with were not very historical information driven – which means they didn’t want to go.  They especially did not want to go once we pulled up in the parking lot and found it cost $5.00 per person to go down into the hole.  I went alone much to their ridiculing.  It was amazing.  You cannot see anything from the parking lot – do not turn around and leave.  Pay your $5.00 and walk down into the hole.  It is worth the hike down.  The Vore Buffalo Jump was discovered in the 1970’s when they were constructing Highway I-90.  It is a natural sink hole that was used as a bison trap from 1500 to 1800 AD.  The Native American tribes drove the buffalo over the edge of the sinkhole as a way of producing meat and hides they would need for the winter.  The artifacts are all in the sinkhole.  The University of Wyoming and South Dakota have been excavating the sinkhole and have found amazing things.  It is impossible to describe the sight at the bottom of a very long stair step trek down to a building that has been built at the bottom of the sink hole.  This building is not visible from the parking lot.  My fellow travelers missed a really amazing sight.  Maybe next time?   Probably not.  I may have gotten Loren down in the hole if he could have ridden a mule to the bottom – but I can’t see him every hiking down the trail. 
We also had dinner at an amazing restaurant in Spearfish, South Dakota  - Shoot the Bull Steakhouse.  Again – it doesn’t  look like much from the outside but please go in.  We went to celebrate my birthday and it was really a great place.  Not only is the food outstanding – but so are the people who work there.  Sheila and I both had a ribeye with brown sugar and chili dry rub that was probably one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.  I have been trying unsuccessfully to reproduce the dry rub at home.  Loren had a buffalo ribeye that was also great.  Then we headed back to the campground in Sundance. 
The campground sets directly next to a gravel road that gets a lot of traffic (and dust).  It is within three miles from Sundance so you don’t get that secluded, quiet feel that many of us long for when we are planning a camping trip.  However, it is convenient to town.  It is not in an area with heavy snow.  It has good gravel so even with the rain it wasn’t difficult to get the trailers out of the campsite.  I think if you are looking for a one or two day place to stop and ride while on your way to Jake Clark’s, this is a really nice area to visit and a nice campground to use.  I would pay close attention to the pen numbers before you back into a campsite so you make sure your site has a real pen and not a tie stall. 
For more information about the campground, you can visit the National Forest Service website. 

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