Go with the Flow

Follow the historic Flume Trail in South Dakota for a road-less-traveled-style summer excursion.

July 2010

On a summer Friday, my husband, Chris, and I skip out of work early and head into my personal version of travel hell: the overcrowded Black Hills of South Dakota. Home to summer rituals that ooze Americana, like treks to Mount Rushmore National Memorial (nearly three million annual visitors) and the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (another 400,000 to 500,000 tourists), this destination is anything but undiscovered. But year after year, we pack up our car with camping gear—the tent, the stove, the air mattress, and the s'mores fixins—and migrate north to Sheridan Lake, a tranquil reservoir just 14 miles from where those American presidents sit chiseled into the mountain. Here, at Sheridan Lake, we can escape the teddy bear-laden gift stores, avoid the strings of RVs teetering along the Needles Highway, and steer clear of the ice cream cone stands. Here, we can hear the wind rustling through the pine needles above and inhale the ponderosas' perfume. Here, we can reminisce.

As we grew up—and years before we even met—both of our families vacationed in the Black Hills. Sitting around the campfire now, listening to the sap from the logs popping and hissing in the heat, we share memories of this same place from ages six, eight, 12, and beyond. That old pop-up camper. A wildflower coloring book. A first crush. For both of us, though, one memory stands out: hiking along the historic 11-mile Flume Trail.

"They look like a toy version of the Rockies," Chris says as we drive through the canyons of the Black Hills. I have to agree. The rocks here are less jagged than in Colorado, the peaks are less intimidating, and even the colors of the dark pines and spruces seem softer, more muted. For miles, the South Dakota prairie undulates to the horizon. And then peaks suddenly rise out of nothing. Known to the Sioux Nation as the Paha Sapa, the area was seen as a sacred, spiritual, and rehabilitating place. That all changed when gold was discovered in the rock and streambeds in the 1870s. Prospectors poured deep into the Hills, leaving a string of homesteads and towns (Deadwood, Hill City, Lead) in their wake. Gold, it seemed, was everywhere, including in the tiny mining settlement of Rockerville.

The problem was extracting it. The Rockerville miners needed a water source to soften the compacted soils of the placer deposits so they could sluice out the gold. But the nearest water source was about 17 miles away. To solve the dilemma, they settled on a grandiose engineering plan to create a giant wooden flume to channel the waters to town. A dam would hold back Spring Creek, near Sheridan Lake. Two tunnels would be drilled through solid rock. Trestles—some 80 feet tall—would help guide the wooden-plank trough downhill.

The plan worked—for a while. After about a decade, the high-maintenance flume (a worker used to walk its length daily to plug leaks with rags) fell into disrepair. Planks were carried off to build nearby ranches or barns. The trestle remnants rotted and crumbled. The tunnels periodically flooded. Moss, ferns, grass, and wildflowers covered the retaining walls. Slowly, the whole ridiculous contraption simply faded into the landscape.