By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Some folks insist that the Black Hills are actually mountains, but having seen the real thing, we disagree. No matter the type of classification you want to give this region, it doesn’t detract from its beauty. Seeing pine-clad peaks rise several thousand feet above the plains is impressive, as are the varied landforms and historical treasures. In an area 125 miles long and 70 miles wide, you’ll encounter national parks, monuments, scenic drives, and wildlife. You certainly won’t be bored.
1. Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota
Chief sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his team labored for 14 years, carving the four figures on Mount Rushmore. This massive sculpture really is a shrine to democracy, just as its publicity claims. Four U.S. presidents are honored in stone “” George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt. Park history explains that these four men were instrumental in creating the country, keeping it united, and expanding its borders and power. Mount Rushmore took form between 1927 and 1941 and it is just as amazing to see today as when it was created.
2. Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota
Less than 20 miles southwest of Mount Rushmore, you come to another colossal mountain carving, this one begun in 1948. It was conceived and started by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who died in 1982, to honor the culture of American Indians. In addition to viewing the work in progress, visitors can see the sculptor’s studio, the Indian Museum of North America, and the Native American Educational and Cultural Center. At the latter, summer visitors can chat with artists and craftspeople as they work.
3. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Wind Cave is one of the world’s longest and most complex caverns. Several different tours allow visitors to view a wide range of formations such as boxwork, an uncommon formation best described as a giant honeycomb made of stone. Cave tours are offered year-round and the park’s visitors center also is open all year.
4. Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota
Jewel Cave hasn’t been fully surveyed yet, but the 135 miles explored so far make it the world’s second-longest cave system. Scientists measuring the airflow through the cave’s passages claim that a vast area lies yet to be discovered. Cave lovers can take several tours and will find a broad range of speleothems “” stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, frostwork, flowstone, and hydromagnesite balloons. The cave is also a hibernaculum for several species of bats.
5. Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming
Humans had nothing to do with the creation of Devil’s Tower “” Mother Nature gets all the credit. The park is open year-round, but the visitors center season is limited to April through November. The season for ranger-led programs is even more limited, between mid-June and mid-August. When visiting, you’ll receive a good introduction to the geologic, natural, and cultural history of the area. Then, if you’re ready to stretch your legs, take the ranger-led Tower Walk. Since it’s on a 1.3-mile-long paved surface, all you need are walking shoes and a bottle of water. The campground is open mid-spring through fall.
6. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
From a distance the buttes, pinnacles, and spires appear to be rising out of the prairie. Just stand there quietly and observe the beauty in silence. The Stronghold Unit of the park, co-managed with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, includes sites where Indians performed “ghost dances” in the 1890s, which were thought to protect them from the bullets of the U.S. military who were pushing them off the land. But that’s recent history compared to the 11,000 years of human history there. Fossil beds, dating from 23 million to 35 million years ago, trace the evolution of mammals such as the horse, sheep, pig, and rhinoceros. Two campgrounds are located in the park, both open year round. Ranger/naturalist programs, scheduled mid-June through Labor Day, include talks, walks, and evening campfire programs.
7. Spearfish Canyon National Scenic Byway, South Dakota
This drive takes you through the bottom of a canyon that began forming 62 million years ago, when softer rock that was once part of an ocean floor eroded away. From Spearfish, Scenic Byway 14A takes you on a winding road through the canyon. You’ll see varied scenes of trees and plants native to the Rockies, eastern woodlands, northern forests, and the Great Plains. In fact, of the 1,585 plant species native to South Dakota, 1,260 of them grow only in the Black Hills. Many of them thrive in Spearfish Canyon.
8. Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, South Dakota
This 70-mile scenic route honors a South Dakota conservationist, governor, and U.S. senator. Peter Norbeck first saw the Black Hills in 1905 while he crossed the prairie on a series of rutted, tough-to-travel roads. Even then he was planning to preserve these spectacular works of nature. The byway leads to some of the geological masterpieces, including Cathedral Spires and Needle’s Eye. Custer State Park is located nearby, complete with campground.
9. Wildlife Loop Road, South Dakota
Located in Custer State Park, this 18-mile loop leads you into forests and then to prairie grasslands. This is your chance to see bison, pronghorn, deer, elk, and prairie dogs. The Wildlife Loop Road well deserves its name.
10. National Museum Of Woodcarving, Custer, South Dakota
The sign for the museum claims that this is “Where Wood Comes Alive!” Its Carving Studio and National Museum Gallery both display the work of well-known and respected woodcarvers. When you finish there, check out the museum’s Wooden Nickel Theater and enjoy its display of 30-plus scenes created by an original Disneyland animator.
11. Custer County 1881 Courthouse Museum, Custer, South Dakota
When you visit this courthouse, you’ll find a museum with displays tracing more than a century’s worth of Black Hills and Custer County history. Inside you’ll view a rock and mineral collection, antique mining equipment, and period furniture and clothing. Across the street is the 1875 Dr. Flick Cabin, said to be the oldest remaining cabin in Custer County.
12. Deadwood and Lead, South Dakota
You’ve no doubt been aching to visit the small towns of Deadwood, population 1,833, and Lead, population 3,500. Deadwood’s Historic Franklin Hotel has been providing travelers a good night’s sleep for a century, and it features South Dakota’s oldest restaurant. After your meal, you might wish to check out “Woody’s Wild West Old Time Photos,” also in Deadwood, where you can have your picture taken in a variety of costumes and settings from long ago.
13. Keystone, South Dakota
The Keystone Historical Museum takes you back a century or so to introduce you to some of the people who discovered gold in Battle Creek. Having located good areas for gold mining, they went on to establish the town of Keystone. There was an awful lot of diggin’ going on back then. You, too, can dig for your own gold ore at the Big Thunder Gold Mine. Visitors take a guided tour of the mine and watch a film about the gold years.