So much to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota

When there are many things to see and do in an area, we try to prioritize what we would like to experience and accept the reality that we can’t do it all.  Leaving a few items unchecked gives us a good reason to come back and enjoy the area again.

Such was the case here in the Black Hills area.  Our wildlife encounters were just half the fun.  Then there were monuments to marvel at, historic towns to visit, scenery to take in, amazing geologic formations to enjoy and a little history to learn.  And I must not forget one of the most important activities – hitting the trails!  So much to do in so little time – and to think we were here for two weeks!

First, the monuments –

With more than 175 miles of mapped and surveyed passageways, Jewel Cave National Monument is the third-longest cave in the world.  To get underground we joined the Scenic Tour, which took us trudging down 723 stairs.  The beautiful “jewels” of Jewel Cave are the calcite spar crystals.  Calcite, which is about as hard as your fingernail, is too soft to be considered a true jewel.  But the cave is lined with calcite crystals which is why it’s called Jewel Cave.  We got the experience of being inside a giant geode.

Spar Crystals
Nail head spar crystals

Spar Crystals

Everyone knows about Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and being one of Steve’s must-see’s made it a stop for us.  Getting there took us on a scenic drive among the Ponderosa Pines and rocky outcroppings high in the Black Hills.  We avoided the crowds by arriving right at opening time, after winding along Iron Mountain Road and crossing through three tunnels which were designed to frame the monument in the distance.  With nobody else on the roads yet, Steve was able to stop each time I yelled so I could capture what we saw through the tunnels.

Mount Rushmore
Four faces of great presidents: Washington, Jefferson, T. Roosevelt and Lincoln

After parking, we followed the Presidential Trail that winds along the base of the mountain and provides various angles to look up at The Faces.  Then we continued on the trail to the Sculptor’s Studio and finally completed the loop at the Grandview Terrace.

At the Lincoln Borglum Museum we watched the 13-minute video that explained how and why the memorial was created and carved.  The museum contained interactive exhibits that detailed the history and development of the sculpture.

Sculptor Gurzon Borglum
A side shot showing the sculpture of sculptor Gurzon Borglum looking out at his creation

Next we visited the nearby “fifth face” that will someday dwarf Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial.  In progress since 1948, it’s the world’s largest mountain carving and it honors the historic heritage and living cultures of North America’s Indian people.  Korczak Ziolkowski took up the challenge to carve a giant sculpture depicting Crazy Horse atop his steed.

Unlike the faces at Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial relies on donations and visitor’s fees to fund the continuing project, hence there is no estimated date of completion.  At the rate it’s progressing it’s unlikely I’ll live to see it completed.

Crazy Horse Memorial
A 563-foot tall work in progress.  The faces at Rushmore would fit in the area just behind Crazy Horse’s face!

It’s creation was the dream of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear to memorialize Crazy Horse, the legendary warrior and leader of the Lakota Sioux.  Born in the Black Hills, he is partially credited with Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  Ziolkowski dedicated his life to the sculpture, and after his death in 1982 his wife and seven of their ten children continued his work.

Crazy Horse Memorial
If ever the sculpture is completed, it should look like this model

The Black Hills scenic byways –

The best way to see the Black Hills is to drive them!   We put many miles on the car as we took in the amazing views while following corkscrew turns and tunnels showcasing the uniqueness of the hills.  We followed the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway with its limestone palisades towering on both sides of the highway.  On another day we took our time winding through the Needles Highway – a drive that traverses a maze of granite formations that look like needles and spires.

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway
Limestone palisades along Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

While following the gorgeous Iron Mountain Road we stopped to read the displays detailing the massive fires that scarred the mountains and are still visible today.  The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway complimented the other scenic drives, and included dramatic historic features found only in the Black Hills.

Needles Highway
That red car is going into the Needles Tunnel, where the mountain goats liked to hang out

Hiking galore –

With the abundance of hiking trails, we grabbed trail maps and took to the hills every chance we got.  We tackled ten trails during our stay, four near Spearfish – Iron Creek, Rough Falls, Crow’s Peak and Lookout Mountain – and six trails that are part of the Harney Peak Trail System – Harney Peak, Cathedral Spires, Lover’s Leap, Little Devil’s Tower, Sylvan Lake and Stockade Lake.  It’s impossible to detail them all here, but check out Hans and Lisa’s great pictures and information, as we did, to prepare for our treks here.

Crows Peak Trail
Crow’s Peak Trail summit at Spearfish
Spearfish, SD
View of Spearfish from the challenging Lookout Mountain Trail
Lookout Mountain
Steve tried to reason with this cow, but it didn’t seem to be impressed

The highlight of our hikes was the strenuous trek to the highest point in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.  At 7,242 feet, Harney Peak features a stone tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a fire watchtower in 1938.  It was used until 1967, and since then it has provided awesome 360º views of the Black Elk Wilderness, massive granite outcroppings and towering rock spires.

Harney Peak Fire Lookout Tower
View from the lookout tower on Harney Peak
Cathedral Spires
Looking out at the Cathedral Spires from the summit of Little Devil’s Tower
Cathedral Spires
The Cathedral Spires derived their name from the towering peaks that look like organ pipes
Sylvan Lake
We walked around the man-made Sylvan Lake – it’s a wow!
Lovers Leap Trail
Dense Ponderosa Pines along Lover’s Leap Trail

And let’s not forget the cute little things on the ground that caught our eye…

…and the birds that kept busy storing their winter goodies…

Finally, the historic towns –

For obvious reasons, we made sure not to be in the Black Hills area during the 75th anniversary of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.  Seeing the thousands of bikers on TV during rally week was enough to keep us away from Sturgis during the first week of August.  But why not go there afterward?  When we arrived it was back to being pretty much a sleepy town.  We stopped at the Full Throttle Saloon, “the world’s largest biker bar” which was featured on a “reality TV show” for several seasons and just burned to the ground a few days ago.

Full Throttle Saloon
Looks like a nice place to have a beer!
Full Throttle Saloon
Wandering through the mostly-empty Full Throttle Saloon

Since we aren’t gamblers, we spent our time in Deadwood checking out the Days of ’76 Museum, a salute to the historic mining camp born in 1876 during the area’s last great gold rush.  I was curios what the “76” was about, and I got my answer in this museum where extensive Old West collections are showcased.

Days of 76 Museum

Days of 76 Museum


After all that walking we were ready for a big dinner, and Steve wanted to try the highly-rated prime rib at Legends.  He just about fell out of his chair when they set a 32-ounce slab of beef in front of him, and was a happy camper as he worked on it for the next three days!

All Steve could say was WOW!

Yes, it was a busy stop with much to see and do, but we had a great time in the Black Hills and would love to come back.  The beautiful weather we enjoyed during our stop made it that much better.

But alas, the calendar told us it was time to move along…





  1. Reblogged this on Follow the Tumble Lees! and commented:

    One day, we will make it here…and hopefully, with our two grandsons if their parents will let us have them one summer! I know their parents will want to come, too, though. Hope we can work it out!

  2. FABULOUS! Between you two, Ingrid, Pam and Steve, we can just sit back and dream about the west. But one day, we’ll make it out that way. At least a few more years here on the east coast.
    Thanks for all these amazing posts, pictures, history and information.

  3. That’s a great header shot Mona Liza. I can’t believe all you did in only 2 weeks. You must need a long rest after all that. Really wonderful hike pictures. What beautiful trails and views. I cannot believe that slab of red meat. 32 oz. That’s two pounds. WOW is right.

  4. You are so right. We loved our time in that area.

    We climbed Harney Peak too. The last quarter of mile can kill a person.

  5. Wow! You really did a lot in only two weeks! We loved our visit to the Black Hills and saw many of the same sights while our grandkids were with us. Wonderful memories! We also hiked to Harney Peak and it was a tough one!

  6. You sure did cover a lot of ground. We enjoyed our stay there so much that we’re already talking about when we might schedule a return trip.

  7. What a great tour of the Black Hills! I would so like to revisit this area again to do some hiking. Glad you listed your hikes. You were definitely busy but at least the autohikes gave you some rest:) Wow! What a coincidence that you just visited the Full-Throttle Saloon and then it burned on Friday. We had that happen when we went to Lewis and Clarks’s Fort Clatsop in Oregon. Two weeks after our visit it, too burned. Love the reflection photo:) Now that is a cave I would visit. The crystals sure make very different than other caves. Sounds like a wonderful two weeks!

  8. What a fantastic post! Your pictures and descriptions are excellent and you must be tired after all that hiking and exploring. You enjoyed every highlight of the area, and more.

  9. 🙂 Glad we could help with the trails! That steak looks ENORMOUS! But delicious! It is amazing that Full Throttle is gone…we visited just before the rally so it was just as quiet as your visit!

  10. It’s always hard for me to accept that I can’t do it all….but even though you said you didn’t do it all, it seems like you did! We would love the hiking trails, and that cave looks spectacular! I’d like to be inside of a geode. 🙂 Oh, and since you asked, your gray mystery bird is a Clark’s nutcracker. They’re very inquisitive and intelligent birds (in the corvid family) found only at high elevations.

  11. As usual, you two saw so much during your time in the Black Hills. It seems we hiked many of the same trails, Harney Peak being our favorite. Wasn’t Jewel Cave fascinating? We did not get to Spearfish, nor to Sturgis. It was fun seeing both through your eyes. Thanks!

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