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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…
Next up: Famous landmarks in Nebraska