Honeymooning Part 3: The Stratobowl and Trail Riding
Installment number 3 detailing our honeymoon adventures. This post includes our experience hiking the Stratobowl, and important part of America’s aviation history. This post also details our trail riding experience at Rockin R Trailrides.
In my previous Honeymooning post, I mentioned visiting the hotel gift shop prior to dinner. That was a good call. We had a short conversation with the woman working there, who filled us in on a nearby hike. I didn’t recognize the name of the attraction when she said it, but Clarissa did; it was a giant “crater” called the Stratobowl.
As it turns out, Clarissa had processed a collection of photographs related to the Stratobowl back when she was working at the Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls. Since we had no specific plans for Tuesday morning, we decided that hiking the Stratobowl would be the best way to start the day. This should serve as a great reminder not to rely only on Google and travel guides for information; talk to locals, chat with people at your hotel, ask people behind the desk if they have any recommendations. The worst thing that will happen is you won’t get any new information. If you’re lucky, however, you’ll find out about something interesting, like the Stratobowl.
For those of you who, like me, don’t know what the Stratobowl is, it’s a large natural depression in the Black Hills National Forest, just Southwest of Rapid City. It looks like a giant crater and in 1934 and 1935, it was home to a stratospheric balloon launch site. After an explosive first attempt, a second high altitude balloon named Explorer II reached a new record height of 72,395 feet. This is obviously an incredibly brief summary, and you don’t necessarily need to know the history to enjoy the hike and the view. However, it’s an interesting bit of aviation history; Explorer II is actually on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Unlike many of the other destinations we visited, the Stratobowl hike isn’t a major draw for tourists so we weren’t competing with a lot of people. It won’t be found in most of the trail guides, brochures, or informational kiosks and we didn’t see another person the entire time we were there, although it might be more populated on the weekend. We didn’t have much trouble finding it, though I can see how some people might; there are no signs for the trail, so you have to keep an eye out for the trailhead. It’s roughly two miles west of Bear Country on Highway 16 heading south from Rapid City. After Bear Country you will see a gas station; just after the station take the next right (that’s Stratobowl Road if you’re following along with a map). That’s it, that’s the trailhead! These directions are specific to the way we came from Rapid City, and were accurate at the time of my writing this. As of today, the Stratobowl will come up on Google Maps, though it wouldn’t while we were there. Just remember that you can’t drive all the way up, so you’ll actually be parking at the beginning of Stratobowl Road.
Parking is very limited. You’re basically parking off to the side of the entrance; it’s a tiny space, but since it’s not an advertised attraction you shouldn’t have any trouble, especially if you go early. We were literally the only people on the trail during our visit. There will be a gate across the road, but there is a space to walk through.
Don’t worry, this is just to keep cars off the trail, which doubles as a maintenance road (that’s Stratobowl Road… Trust me, it makes a much better trail than a road). Walk past the gate and in no time at all you’re surrounded by aromatic pine trees.
As you get farther along, there will be a number of small trails shooting off the main path to your left. These are worth some exploration if you have the time; they will lead you to fantastic overlooks and some lovely stone outcroppings.
There are also some great dramatic stone outcroppings perfect for hanging your legs off. We decided to pose for some photos that we would find exhilarating but would probably make our mothers nervous. If you do the same, move slowly and keep track of your footing, your balance, and the solidity of the terrain. Don’t exceed your limitations, take your time, and exercise caution. If you’re not comfortable, or don’t feel safe near the edge, just pass. There are other great photo ops on this trail that won’t put you on the edge of a cliff.
Once you reach the top, you’ll see the view in full. While we were there, someone had mowed a giant peace sign into the grass at the bottom of the depression. Is it always present? Who puts it there? I can’t say with any certainty, but it does add a touch of whimsy to the hike.
There is also a memorial plaque honoring the 1935 world record setting ascent of Explorer II and her pilots from the site.
Exercise caution when leaning on the wooden rails; I discovered that they were loose and that wasps were living in the brick columns. I’d hate for a sting to ruin your view! Of course, they might be gone by the time you visit, having moved along to a more suitable hive locale.
From the overlook a few other trails break off, but we didn’t explore them. I wish we had, as I’m sure that there is some worthwhile stuff that we missed. If you’ve explored the area, please share your experience as I would love to know more. From the trailhead to the overlook and back isn’t too long of a hike, only a couple of miles give or take. Less if you don’t get off the beaten path. I think we walked just under two miles by the time we got back to the car, so it’s pretty accessible. If you’re not sure if you are healthy or fit enough to hike Harney Peak, the views at the Stratobowl will be a nice alternative, and you can consider it training for when you eventually do ascend Harney!
Though it wasn’t in any of the guides, brochures, or web searches, we were really glad that we made the little jaunt. It was well worth the time, the views were great, and it was a nice way to loosen up our legs and test my boots after the previous day’s hiking. All in all, well worth the trip!
It wasn’t even noon when we finished the hike, and we were really interested in going trail riding that afternoon; despite working as a stable-hand in my early twenties, I had never ridden a horse before. There were a few trail riding stables listed on our attraction map, so we headed their general direction. Clarissa tried to contact them while I drove, but we weren’t having much luck. As it turned out, September was a little late in the season, so most places were either closed or running skeleton crews. We had to leave them messages and wait for them to get back with us, likely because they were on the trails or seeing to guests.
While we waited to hear back, we stopped in Keystone and decided to do a little exploring and get a bite to eat. After a little wandering, we stopped in at a place called Teddy’s Deli, and it was awesome.
We had the opportunity to chat with our server a bit, and there’s just something I love about a big, friendly, ebullient waiter, waitress, or bartender. This gentleman was the kind of guy who doesn’t know a stranger, and I got the feeling that he treats all the tourists like locals, who he treats like buddies. It’s just an incredibly comfortable atmosphere.
Plus, I love food! I’m a fierce advocate of eating things that taste great. The specialty at Teddy’s Deli is a one pound Reuben, which we did not get but looks amazing. Maybe I’ll rise to the challenge next time we’re in that neck of the woods. That day, however, we split a tuna melt, and it really hit the spot. If you find yourself in the area, I recommend stopping in for a bite to eat. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Just after lunch, Clarissa heard back from Rockin R Trailrides and she got a time set for us to ride. We headed that way and even though we had a little trouble finding the exact spot to turn off, we made it in plenty of time to hang out with a woman and her two grandsons, as well as another young woman, who would be the other members of our riding group. They were a friendly bunch, and we enjoyed chatting with them for a bit. After a little paperwork, we had a quick introduction from Peggy, our trail guide. She laid out the ground rules and demonstrated how to manage the horses. Then we got paired up with our horses; I was partnered with a brown, stubborn but friendly mare named Miss Kitty.
Clarissa got paired up with a friendly fella named Curly. One by one we were helped into the saddle, had our stirrups adjusted, and after a little further instruction, we were off.
Now keep in mind, this was trail riding for inexperienced riders. That is to say, we were not out galloping across the plains or into the mountains. It was a pretty quiet, gentle, easy ride. Honestly, the horses could probably have followed one another without much intervention from us riders, but I’m grateful that they allowed us to have the illusion of control.
Still, even knowing that this was a guided trail ride, I couldn’t help but feel very wild and free on horseback. I’m aware that much of that was illusory, but that didn’t make it any less of an amazing experience. Despite riding in a single file line with four horses and riders ahead of me, and two behind me, there were moments where I felt very far away from everything, but incredibly connected to the animal I rode, and the trees and mountains around me. Honestly, that isn’t an uncommon reaction for me; when I’m out in nature, I tend to feel a distinct kinship with the world around me, and distractions from the “civilized” world fade away. I’m not surprised that these feelings welled up while riding.
It’s difficult to review an emotional reaction to the experience, and that’s not necessarily why you’re reading this anyway. So, let me tell you a bit about the ride itself. It’s a nice easy pace, along pretty easy to navigate terrain. If you’re an avid rider, you’ll probably find this a little boring, but if you’re new to horsemanship (like us), then it will probably prove to be an enjoyable ride.
We cut across meadows, through some wooded areas, up and down hillsides, and into the foothills of the mountains. We had scheduled an hour ride, expecting this to include our prep time, but we were out riding for a good hour and fifteen minutes, if not a little longer.
I’m glad that we decided to take the opportunity to trail ride while honeymooning. Peggy was an excellent instructor and guide, and our horses were friendly and easy-going. To top it off, we became certified cowboys and cowgirls at the end!
If you’re in the area and want to go riding, consider Rockin R. Our experience with them was excellent. They’re open from Memorial Day through September (told you were there late in the season). Drop ins are welcome, but reservations are recommended. Plus, calling ahead can help with directions; like I mentioned, finding the exact turn in was tricky. It wasn’t expensive at all, only $35 per rider for an hour on the trail, but like I said, we definitely got more than our money’s worth, and they do offer longer rides if an hour won’t be enough for you. Be sure to tip your trail guide..
There are a few other options available for riding, and remember, you may need to leave a message and wait for someone to return your call. It probably wouldn’t hurt to plan a little more in advance than we did, but Rockin R Trailrides treated us really well, and we left happy, so they definitely have my recommendation.
After trail-riding we still had plenty of daylight left, and we decided that the best way to return to Rapid City would be back through Custer State Park, along the Wildlife Loop. To read about that particular part of our journey, however, you’ll have to check back for the next installment. If you’re worried you’re going to miss it, you can follow me here on WordPress, on Twitter, and on Instagram. That way you’ll always know when my next post is up, and you’ll get to see other (sometimes) exciting events, activities, and random stuff from my life. Also, don’t hesitate to hit up the comment section and tell me what you think or share your own experiences.
So keep your eye out for the next Honeymooning post, and until next time, stay intrepid.