It used to be a bumpy two-track trail that could rattle your composure and damage your undercarriage — the one under your vehicle, of course.
But now it’s becoming a highway to history.
That’s true, at least, if we define “highway” as a main route of travel to some place that really matters.
Because this is the main route to the Sanson Ranch and Buffalo Jump in Wind Cave National Park. And they really matter, not just to the 33,924-acre park but also to its visitors and to the inventory of educational and historic sites on public land across the United States.
For years, getting there has not been half the fun on a trip to the Sanson Ranch. Instead, it was most of the misery.
Almost getting there was simple, by way of highway asphalt and well-maintained gravel. It was the last mile in to the ranch and the first mile out that could turn into a headache, literally.
To say nothing of a flat tire, a torn-off muffler or worse.
“This year we’re working to improve that road,” says Tom Farrell, chief of interpretation at Wind Cave. “It started out as a two track, where people could lose parts of their cars.”
They could lose parts of their tranquility, too, which is something you hope to preserve and even enhance by visiting the park, the ranch and the jump.
And speaking of the jump, it’s an amazing point of history that lies across the Beaver Creek valley from the old Sanson place. About 4,000 years ago indigenous hunters drove bison over the limestone cliff to crash into the creek bed below.
Seeing the jump for the first time more than a decade ago, I asked Farrell how far the bison fell. His answer was simple: "Far enough."
And standing near the base of the cliff today, you can get a sense for the ferociously physical action that must have ensued there. The dead and dying bison would have been thrashing around on the ground while indigenous hunters risked injury or death to finish them, then began an essential slaughtering process needed to sustain the tribal collective.
It was subsistence hunting writ large. And relics remain, beneath the surface and occasionally on it. The ranch also features other cultural sites, including stone circles that could be tipi rings, although that isn't quite certain.
One of the things that is certain is that the Sanson family operated the ranch from 1882 to 1987. And in its day — which means the multiple-decades-long “day” when the ranch was producing livestock and young ranchers — the mile-long stretch of entry road surely was in better shape, although likely never a smooth ride.
After Sanson ranch operations stopped in 1987, the surrounding prairie began to further reclaim the road as its own. And it does a good job of that, year by year, winter by winter, rainstorm by rainstorm, baking summer after baking summer.
When Carl Sanson sold the ranch, its future was as uncertain as the terrain crossed by the two-track trail. It remained a working ranch under the Casey family of Rapid City and Bear Country USA fame. But it featured a captive elk herd that eventually was the source of a chronic wasting disease (CWD) outbreak that led to the entire herd being destroyed and buried at the ranch.
That outbreak is believed to be a factor in the higher incidence of CWD in and near Wind Cave, and in the southern Black Hills.
The transition from private ranch to public destination
In 2000, the Casey family approached park officials about selling the 5,556-acre ranch, including the old ranch headquarters and buffalo jump. By 2005, the park, its friends and the state’s congressional delegation pushed through congressional authorization for the the expansion of Wind Cave National Park in preparation for the land purchase.
Tired of waiting for a grinding federal process and embroiled in their own family disputes, the Caseys put the land up for auction. And a non-profit, The Conservation Fund, stepped in to buy the land and hold if for the National Park Service until federal funding could be arranged. By the fall of 2011, the deal was done, using Land and Water Conservation Fund money, which comes in large part from federal leasing fees for off-shore oil and natural-gas wells.
The sale and transfer didn’t mean an explosion of activity on the new park ground. Environmental processes move at their own pace, and federal budgets for national parks have been especially challenged in recent years.
But work continues on the ranch building, and plans have been developed for hiking trails and wayside exhibits. There will also be additional access points to the Sanson Ranch portion of the park from U.S. Highway 385 and the 7-11 Road.
Those other access points get you to the land at large, a beautiful place to visit. But the crucial 1-mile trail-becoming-road-again gets you to the ranch, to the jump and to a big step back in time.
So now the path to a place of historical and cultural significance is evolving into a smooth gravel ride that will accommodate passenger cars as well as sturdier pickups and SUVs.
And officials at Wind Cave National Park have the Friends of Wind Cave National Park, a non-profit which bought materials for the project, and the National Guard road builders to thank for that.
“It shows you how integral the military is with our everyday life,” Farrell says.
It also shows the value of partnerships, in this case the one that exists between the park and the National Guard through the annual Golden Coyote training exercises.
Golden Coyote began in 1984 as a partnership between the South Dakota National Guard, the Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park. But the partnership often involves other government agencies and property, too, including Wind Cave.
The SDNG hosts the event and calls in guard support from other states, attracting units from other branches of the U.S. military, and from other nations, too. And the Black Hills offer a wide variety of terrain and training opportunities.
Beyond that valuable training, Golden Coyote provides cost-saving services to the Black Hills region that are outlined on the South Dakota National Guard website:
“Local residents received numerous benefits from the many engineer projects conducted during the exercise. Units transport timber to Native American communities that use it for firewood, conduct building construction, repair and upgrades, identify hazardous wilderness areas and make them safe for public use and resurface local roadways that have fallen into disrepair.
The roadway repair applies to the Sanson Ranch road, of course, and is part of the Wind Cave plan to make the historic ranch headquarters and the older buffalo jump nearby more accessible to the public.
National Guard crews began work on the road last year and increased the work this year, with help from the 220th Engineers our of Festus, Mo.
“Each year we tell the guard what projects we’d like done, and then they advertise that to units around the world,” Farrell says. “Then someone says, ‘I want my group to have experience in that.’ Road work is much in demand.”
Lt. Col. LeeJay Templeton of the 200th Engineering Co., in Pierre was overseeing the road work at Wind Cave when I stopped to chat with him and Farrell. Templeton said training opportunities like the road project were invaluable for the guard units.
“It’s pretty exciting,” he said. “The soldiers get the training value while doing something that benefits the area.”
Templeton, who works full time as a professional engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Pierre, says the National Guard has never been more prepared for construction assignments than it is today. And regardless of where a guard unit originates, it’s prepared to handle work in its area of expertise anywhere it is sent, he said.
“It doesn’t matter where they’re from, if they’re a horizontal construction company, that’s what they do,” he said. “Air fields, expeditionary roads, whatever. They come in with their scrapers and blades and dozers and go to work.”
They did just that on the Sanson road project, with more work to come.
Construction projects across the Black Hills have been complicated by rainy weather this year. And storms hit during the Golden Coyote training. But there was enough dry weather for the guard personnel working on the Sanson Ranch road to make important progress, which will be supplemented by local guard units during more short-term stretches of work.
“There’s still work to be done on that road,” Farrell says. “I think the 842nd out of Sturgis will be coming down sometime in August.”
Drainage is a challenge for the road construction, especially in this period of high flows. Beaver Creek runs above ground farther upstream in the park but usually slips into limestone seams around the ranch, running underground until it emerges in surface flow again downstream from the park.
This year, however, the creek flows right through the ranch above ground, passing beneath the buffalo jump cliff. That flow will complicate the Saturday tours of the ranch and buffalo jump offered during July in past years, presuming they are held this year. Farrell and other park officials are pondering the possibilities now.
“The water’s not going down fast, so we need to come up with a solution on that,’ he says. “And we also need to nail down then the guard is going to come back.”
Long term, Farrell hopes that by sometime in 2020 the road will be finished and the Sanson Ranch open to public access virtually all year, accept for snowy periods of the winter.
“The goal is to make it just a regular part of the park,” he says. “We want to get to where people can just come and go.”
And for that, of course, they’ll need a good road.
But let’s call this one a highway. It's the main route to a very special place.