The visitor fee of $15 per vehicle might seem a bit steep until you realize that it allows you access to the park for a period of seven days; not bad. This time around we entered from the eastern side of the park and headed south on the Wildlife Loop. It wasn't long before we discovered one of several large herds of bison blocking traffic, so we settled in to take some photographs and a couple video clips.
This one makes you think of the buffalo nickel, doesn't it? These guys are huge, weighing about a ton. If you see a lone male buffalo, they are normally the older males who have fought for their herd of females and lost. The older, losing male will then spend the rest of his days alone.
The bison have no fear of vehicles and simply amble across the roadway at will, assuming traffic will stop for them. The truck pulled off near the center left of the photo below is a park ranger with a whip (I asked if it was to force the tourists to move along and got a grin from him). I assume the whip was to assist in getting the bison to move if they blocked traffic for too long or created too much of a back up.
The wild donkeys are descended from animals that were once available for trail rides in the park. When that business was closed, the donkeys were simply let go to live free in the park. They are the park's beggars and will pretty much eat anything that's offered to them.
This little guy was not only adorable, but his coat was unbelievably soft. He accepted pats and ear rubs but still preferred mom's milk to any treats being offered. That's mom poking her head into the picture on the lower right.
Circling west and then north you arrive at Needles Highway. There are three tunnels on this route, the smallest being 8'4" wide and 12' tall and the next smallest being 10' wide and only 10' tall. It was at the 10' tall tunnel that we saw a Class C RV trying to figure out what they were going to do because they were too tall to enter and the roadway behind them (2 lane) was a long series of hairpin switchbacks. I will say that when you enter the park you are given a booklet that has a map that lists all the interior roadway, all the tunnels and all the height and width limitations on said tunnels. So no excuses for folks who get stuck.
Needles Highway was named for the tall spires of rock jutting out of the ground in this section of the park. It's quite a change from the rolling hills of the Wildlife Loop.
Can you see the resemblance to a bear in the yellowish rock below?
This time around we only saw bison and pronghorn antelope. Our last time through we also saw big horn sheep, although there are also mountain goats, elk, and a couple of varieties of deer that live in the park.
Originally there were 50,000 forested acres in the park. Wildfires have burned 23,000 of those acres, some of that thanks to the pine beetles that are killing the trees, turning them to tinder. Trees that have been damaged by the pine beetles turn red/brown like those below and whole mountain sides are covered with these dying trees.
There is so much to see and do in the Rapid City area but I have to admit, I think I prefer the area after Labor Day when the crowds are a bit smaller. I'm sure we'll be back to this area again.