It’s my last day of the year to visit Custer State Park. I’m on my own and decided to take Iron Mountain Road to pay a visit to the old ghost town of Spokane, South Dakota. I came here after reading a book called the Spokane Kid, a story about a boy becoming a man as he learned the ways of the Black Hills. Living in Keystone, he initially helped out on several campgrounds before becoming a guide in the Black Hills.
It’s a story I can relate to. There’s so much to learn here, and so much to respect. His Black Hills Adventures take him around the entire mountain range with his father. It took them days, running across old timer miners, camping along the shores of Center Lake, Sylvan Lake and throughout what is now Custer State Park.
Back at this time there were quite a few little towns through Custer, which no longer exist because of the formation of the park. These lands were purchased, added to the park and flattened to let nature take over. The story speaks of the town of Spokane, which like most mountain towns was mined for gold, but they soon found the area was much richer in silver, mica and zinc.
I pulled over to Spokane Creek Campground, parked the car and followed the little sign that said “Ghost Town” on it. The colors of the forest were still golds and browns, with the Ponderosa Pine bursting with green needles. Spokane Creek ran along the trail, making it a little wet and muddy, but I was on a mission.
Soon I begin to find evidence of miners at work. Mostly consisting of rusted sheets of metal, cans, bottles and the like. The best park along the way are tailings. Tailings are the small to medium size rocks taken from the ground and piled up nearby. I can see quartz, mica, feldspar and granite. The ground appears to be littered with the jewels of the Black Hills.
Still searching for the old town of Spokane, I wandered on not seeing a trace of buildings until I come across a cut in the forest where electrical lines run. Here I see the foundation of a building. Whenever you’re in the Black Hills, it’s important to stop, look and listen. I imagine what it was like in 1893, when the story was written.
As I look around, I see large gaps between the older trees with younger growth in between. These are the trails and roads that used to exist and a road leads to more buildings. I follow it, and come across a home, with an outbuilding, classic cars and all kinds of mining artifacts. There are mining depressions in the ground dotted everywhere. Storage tanks are built into the ground holding who knows what.
I’m in the past, walking through areas that first indigenous people occupied and more recently settlers from the east. It’s incredibly beautiful. I feel a sadness come over me as I realize my time here is coming to a close, albeit temporarily.
Facts about Spokane South Dakota:
This makes for a great trail hike before entering the Eastern Side of Custer State Park. Pick up the book “Spokane Kid” at the Iron Mountain Road gift shop at Spokane Creek Campground. Maybe soon, I’ll be leading hikes through the hills and telling tall tales of the Black Hills National Forest.
Visitors have been coming to this area as tourists for a variety of reasons since the late 1800’s. It wasn’t all about mining back then, just mostly. Here’s a map of Custer State Park. The roads through the park such as the Wildlife Loop Road, Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road can get you turned around, so I suggest hiring a guide for a Black Hills Tour.
I hope to see you starting in April of 2022 for another season in the Sacred Black Hills of South Dakota!
Daniel Milks, Owner of My XO Adventures
Traveler, Adventurer, Daredevil and occasional writer.
Love, Compassion, Tolerance and Forgiveness to Myself and all Others.
It was June of 2020, and the height of the pandemic. The road had led me to the Black Hills. Like all other places, I had no idea what to expect or experience, but here I was. I knew I was being led, but the furthest I could see was the one step ahead I was being asked to take. “Everything is going to be ok.” The words came to me often throughout my journey. It first started in North Carolina and continued for the year and a half journey with no home, other than the kindness of people, the comfort of my tent, and the endless beauty of nature. This was my home, and a good one.
My first season in the Black Hills was working as a guide for a local tour company. I was used to being thrown to the wolves. It was a skill I learned many times before, but in this case in came with respect and responsibility. It was up to me to go above and beyond what the tourists came here to see. The monuments, museums and wild west stories abound, but the Hills were calling. So much history, both joy and pain reside here in the rocks. No place on earth is like it, and I find the learning side both fascinating and a bit of a rabbit hole.
One day I was asked to conduct a tour for a couple, and to take them to a place called Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary. I had been in the Northern Black Hills to show off Spearfish Canyon with its towering limestone cliffs, waterfalls and multitudes of colors. Where is this Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary, and how was I to be a guide at a place I knew nothing of, or even why it’s there?
I figured I would just have to use social skills to make it through, so down the dirt road we went. Without a description, just a GPS location guiding me to the parking lot that marks the beginning of the journey. A wooden door with cast iron adornments greets you here. A message above the door reads “Love, Compassion, Tolerance and Forgiveness to Myself and all Others. This was a good start, but the love was about to become apparent as soon as the gate opened, and we stepped through.
One of the best tools a guide has is his or her eyes, so I immediately looked around searching for things to talk about. Walking sticks, umbrellas and a door with books behind it greeted us. The book was “The Turkey Shack”, by Dave Snyder. At the time, I thought this book was probably unrelated to what I was about to experience and not worth taking a look at. Instead, we were greeted with the handprints of men, women and children in a concrete plaque. One that would be important entering and exiting. The invocation was next, and then a place you could read about the sanctuary, it’s purpose and recommendations of how to proceed.
This was going to be a quiet journey, and I part from the guests for a time so that we can go through this in our own way. It was a beautiful day. I remember the leaves from the Quaking Aspens fluttering as they do, making a beautiful rustling sound helping to ground myself on what was otherwise a shaky ground for a tour guide.
Along the way, the bronze plaques were places to reflect. Benches with metal boxes containing notepads to write thoughts were dotted through the landscape. Who built this I thought? The meadow between the Aspens and the Ponderosa higher up on the hill lit up with color, and I could see the meandering creek running through it all, with a stand of trees directly in the center of the meadow. So many times along the path I stopped, read and was brought to tears by the words I read, but beyond that the special area this land inhabited. To this day, I’ve never had a stronger connection to the Black Hills than in this very spot.
What was it about this place? How perfect it was. Why was I being shaken to the core? How did this day turn from being a historian, entertainer, driver, personality, geologist etc. to simply shutting my mouth and connecting to nature? It was rejuvenating and healing at the same time, but still, I couldn’t explain why. Was this a Holy place of some kind? I suppose all places are in one way or another, but I’d like to return here again.
So I did, but not with tours. I returned by myself and another with an unexpected friend. Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary changed from green to golden during this time, with the last visit in 2020 being in September. The colors were outstanding. The yellow Aspen contrasted with the Ponderosa Pine, like islands in the massive green landscape. Each visit was special, and I returned with an inward reflection I never saw before.
The next year I return. Conducting tours on my own, I feel a bit like the Spokane Kid of Keystone. The Northern Black Hills are my favorite place to be, yet it’s the least popular for visitors to choose. During the summer I brought a few curious people here, who enjoyed every moment. I have no words, but from what my eyes have seen. I let the viewer experience it in their own way because I believe we are all brought here for our own reasons. Now that I’m at the end of another season, I’d like to first express my gratitude for the success I’ve experienced in the Black Hills, the kind people, and for Gods remarkable creation in Southwestern South Dakota.
I decided to call this place home, and in July of 2021 I signed a lease on a small apartment in an old home that is just perfect. I invited my family, and my mother came to see someplace she’d never been and only heard stories. It was October 4th, 2021 and I decided to show her the Northern Black Hills to catch the leaf change and share Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary with her for the first time.
I’m 43 now, and I don’t think she realized but my intentions were to make the most out of her time here. Not by cramming in a busy schedule but rather to be present, and to make memories. I want some mother/son time and I couldn’t think of a better place. I was excited.
Cows crossed the road; deer made their presence known and in my mother’s signature way she noticed it all. She could find beauty in just about anything, but it wasn’t difficult out here. We were surrounded. We entered the gate together, and my healing was already beginning. I knew what I was about to see but wasn’t quite sure how it was going to affect me, or her for that matter.
Like parent/child relationships there are epically painful and tragic moments mixed with happiness and love. This was my story at least, and I hoped to bring some healing where it was still raw and build on the love we have for one another. It was emotional for us both. I can’t speak for my mother, but her repeating this was her favorite place she’s ever seen, and it was magical.
It was indeed that, and I was glad to hear her express those feelings. I knew all along she would, as I’m more like my mother than I admit. We spent over two hours observing, reading, resting and sharing. We explored so many places, with Harmony Hill being the highlight. To sit, listen to the chimes and overlook this incredible vista of the meadow and bright yellow leaves below. You may not know it, but this is a place you come to be a part of, not so much a visitor. It is a part of you, and you it. After following the trail, we come full circle to the gate.
Our pace slows, a reflection that neither of us really want to go. We could be content here for the entire day if we wanted, but there was much more to see. I take a look at those books one year after seeing them the first time and buy one. It’s called “The Turkey Shack”, and there is a small metal and wood shack on one side of the property that stands. I imagine it bewilders those who see it the first time without reading the book.
I dropped in the recommended donation and took the book home. It became her book during the visit here. She read it each night for a short while before bed, and in the morning with a cup of coffee on the front porch, with the autumn breeze blowing by. She’s like this. It’s chilly outside. She brings a blanket, a book and a hot coffee. She must wonder how long she can stay out and enjoy everything. I let her have the time and work on my tours of the Black Hills as she does what she pleases.
Nine days later she finishes the book and tells me how wonderful it is. The writing gave her the answers to questions she had about the meadow. It opened her eyes and seemed to be at just the right time. Now she contemplates relocating here and well, we’ll see. Back safe in Florida now, she has the stories of the Black Hills, both Northern and Southern to tell her friends.
We now both have new memories, which is exactly what I wanted. Everything came together to create an invaluable moment. It’s my turn to read the book, and I’ve done so. It is a great book, and one of immense pain, growth and forgiveness. It’s a contribution of a lifetime experience that can be added to your own personal journey. I’m still not sure if it’s best to read before or after your visit. Whatever you believe, you’ll know that stories happened here, perhaps moments of great magnitude. Grandmothers, warriors, children, spirits and I’m sure God not only left an impression but continue to reside. As if greeters, guides and healers coming together for all those that enter.
It’s not a place to fear, it’s a place to love. It’s not a place to come for understanding of it all, but rather that there are many things yet not understood. It’s a place of being, and it’s right here in my new home. Thank you to the Snyder family for creating this special place, and for keeping it open to the public to enjoy. Thank you for the memories made and yet to come.
I'm an adventurer, explorer, daredevil and occasional writer. I love the travel the world and share my experience with others through my company, My XO Adventures.
I had to clear my head today, and nature is the best place for me to find the answers. Bear Butte is a place of vision quests and one that I’ve not hiked, so off I go.
Some good music along the way is necessary, to slow my brain down from its constant fluttering of thoughts, to-do’s and plans for the future. I settle on some Native American flute by Darren Thompson, a local artist. After about 40 miles of driving outside Rapid City I arrive in Sturgis and follow Google Maps, which takes me to the wrong place. Lesson number one. I turn off the GPS and figure it out by circling the mountain and finding the unassuming road to the parking lot.
My gear goes into my backpack, and I’m ready for another Black Hills Adventure. I read the posted signs at the base of the trailhead before making my way up. No photos of the prayer cloths hung from trees, silence is best, respect the wildlife and the sanctity of the area. I got this.
I hear the grass crackle, stop, get my eyes and ears tuned in, then she moved again. It’s the first animal, a beautiful female pheasant under a small pine in the golden grass. Revealing herself to me, she slowly moved ahead creating distance and putting the pine between her and I. Patiently I stand, watching her careful movements and just taking in the moment.
As I climb higher, I hear the sound of a bird calling. I’m hoping it’s the Magpie, my favorite bird of the Dakotas. She won the race for all two-legged creatures by cleverness, not physical prowess.
Teasing me, I stop, listen and hear nothing. I move forward and the calls come out, mixed with the sound of my boot soles as they touch the gravel. The contact makes just enough noise to keep her exact location from me.
Finally, it flies out of one pine to another, presumably flirting with his lover bird. The wings opened and he glided at an angle beneficial to my eyes with an iridescent blue.
It was the Magpie, and now he’s gliding back and forth between Ponderosa pines. Thank you, Magpie.
I continue my hike. This time the rock becoming my focal point, I reach a place where I can catch my breath and look around. Bright green lichen adorns the rocks, themselves like gypsum in their own linear crystal shapes. This mountain looks older than the spires, less worn but more cracked. Steps of Superman’s home accompany each protrusion.
The trail is adorned with strips of cloth tied to branches, each the color of the directions. Red for North, white for South, yellow for East and black for West.
Feeling both reverent and spooky at the same time, I try not to stare at the patters and shapes they form. It’s as if God were present, tending to the prayers and hopes of all his children. I walk carefully, mindful of my footsteps and body movements through the tighter areas of vegetation.
I hear the distant sound of poor-quality music, reminding me of the single speaker radio I once had in my youth. In an Instant, the Zen-like feeling and bright glowing Chakras flickered and blew out like a delicate microfilament of carbon inside a light bulb. Humans, sometimes they’re just unavoidable. They pass, and so does the moment. I’m taken back into the sacred.
Scars on the mountain are reminders of a large fire that burned here in 2018. Bear Butte lost almost all its trees. The trail takes you through this long-gone inferno and reveals the healing power of nature.
The mountain is regenerating. Each type of forest is its own story and position in the cycle. Surviving the flames, I come to a stand of Ponderosa. It’s then I hear the comforting sound of wind being split by the dark green sturdy needles.
A Hairy Woodpecker begins his hunt. The location is close and easy to spot. He pecks away at the dead limbs daring the burrowing bugs to the surface.
The prayer cloths are everywhere now. I wonder about the feelings each one represents. Hope, fear, needs, sorrow, wishes and dreams, they’re all present and vibrating. The evening before I had a terrible dream, making the situation even more intense. Don’t binge “YOU” on Netflix, it’s not right.
I’m descending, the pathway full of mistakes to be made. Keeping my head down and trying not to kick rocks I slowly forge ahead. A familiar “S” shape lays across the path. Green and yellow, the snake makes its way up the hillside through broken grasses, small branches and rocks. A typical reaction at this point would be to scream and run, but I know everything I see is a message from my higher power. I stand still and watch as the Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer crosses the intersection.
Days ago, snow fell heavily in this area, leaving 2 feet on top of the mixed grasses. Laying down now, the pale green stems lead to golden tips. A sign of the cycle and a movement towards the winter season.
I’m down the mountain and thinking again. It was a great experience and just right. Right time, place and setting.
Bear Butte is a sacred place to the Lakota, Cheyenne and other tribes. It’s clearly a special place that should be respected and preserved. It’s best to be silent here, with no enhancement or distraction. Being in a quiet place is needed now more than ever. Think how nice it would be if everyone practiced silence.
I felt if I visited without expectation and an open mind, I’d find what I was looking for, and I did.
I'm a traveler at heart, with a constant desire to learn and explore. Home for me is in the Black Hills of South Dakota. My company is My XO Adventures, a dream come to reality that offers Black Hills Adventures, as well as cultural immersion vacation packages all over the world. As I explore, I share my experiences with close friends, family, guests and readers like you!