A Step Back into the Old West ~ Black Hills, SD

Blogging has taken a back seat to family matters recently but I felt I needed to write a belated post about some breathtaking country in South Dakota before our time there becomes a distant memory for me.

Cathedral Spires in the Black Hills
Cathedral Spires in the Black Hills

The Black Hills, spanning 1.2 million acres, are a geologically complex land, an island oasis floating above a sea of prairie. The roadways traversing these densely forested slopes are listed among National Geographic’s Drives of a Lifetime.  Her grassy plains, soaring granite cliffs, and plunging gorges draw you into an intricate mural.  Beneath these pine-covered hills lie an underground labyrinth of calcite crystals and hidden caverns, mostly “wild”, only explored by professional spelunkers and geologists.

The whispers of the Old West are carried on the wind here, where Lewis and Clark passed through; Crazy Horse fought for freedom; and the Gold Rush of 1876 created a miners’ camp known as Deadwood, luring the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

We focused our time in the southern hills.  Here are a few stops that we found noteworthy:

1)  Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Towering granite splendor - Mt. Rushmore National Memorial
Towering granite splendor – Mt. Rushmore National Memorial

A hurried trip years ago brought us back here for further exploration.  On this visit we joined an interpretive ranger who took us through the  creative process for this massive memorial.

Gutzon Borglum, the same sculptor who designed the intricate Confederate carvings depicted on Stone Mountain in Georgia, was brought in to design Mt. Rushmore.  Borglum’s vision, a memorial to the history of America, brought four US Presidents to life on a granite cliff side – George Washington, our 1st President, whose image is as tall as a 6-story building, Thomas Jefferson (#3), Theodore Roosevelt (#26), and Abraham Lincoln (#16).

In 1927, with over 400 workers scaling this massive granite slab, dynamiting and chiseling gave way to Borglum’s vision, ending with his death 14 years later, his dream not quite fully realized, but his contribution immeasurably felt.

 2)  Jewel Cave National Monument
Bacon anyone?
Bacon anyone?

Named for its glittering calcite crystal walls and with 166 miles of mapped passages, Jewel Cave is the 3rd-longest cave system in the world, continuing to grow at a rate of 3 miles per year. Only 3-5% of this cave has been explored so no telling how vast it truly is.  We enjoyed our tour but felt this cave did not quite rival Carlsbad, Mammoth or Kartchner Caverns.

Anyone interesting in slithering through tight spaces on their belly should consider taking one of their Wild Cave Tours – not something this claustrophobic girl would contemplate.

3)  Wind Cave National Park
A stubborn beast takes the high road.
A stubborn beast takes the high road.

This is the first cave to be given National Park status anywhere in the world.  Its proximity to Jewel Cave has some believing that one day there will be a connecting passage discovered between the two.

Wind Cave is a land of contrasts, a mystical world of hidden caverns and hiking trails meandering through forests and plains.  We chose to play in the sun and hiked the Centennial/Lookout Point Trail Loop, 5 miles through wide-open plains and deeply shrouded, rocky canyons.

It is here where we learned to gently prod a one-ton bull bison up a steep, rocky trail ahead of us.  With nothing but an abrupt chasm on one side and heavily forested cliffs on the other, going around this beast wasn’t an option, nor were we keen to turn back.  Photography was set aside to keep nearby trees in view, lest this big fella grow tired of our nudging and show us his mettle.  At the top of the ridge we said our goodbyes as he chose to continue on the high road. 🙂

4)  Custer State Park

This was the crown jewel of our trip through the Black Hills, with its abundant hiking, wildlife, and diverse scenery.  We understand why it was ranked as one of the top 10 state parks this year by Fodor’s.

Custer State Park boasts several driving tours that display the uniqueness of this park and is the reason we feel it rivals many a national park.  For wildlife viewing, take the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road and meet the famous bison herd.  Nearly 1300 if these massive beasts roam the park and each September, when there’s a crispness in the air and the leaves turn garnet and gold, it’s Buffalo Roundup time.   Visitors come to watch this thundering herd of bison being driven out of the hills by cowboys and cowgirls on horseback.  They are corralled, branded, tested, and some auctioned off to keep the herd at a healthy, stable population.

You may need nerves of steel to tackle narrow 17-mile Iron Mountain Road, boasting 314 curves and 14 switchbacks.  What draws visitors here are the three tunnels that all frame Mt. Rushmore as you look in your rear-view mirror.

Dubbed Needles Highway for the slender granite spires that line this roadway, the hairpin turns and narrow granite tunnels will force you to slow down to soak in the magnificent surroundings.  Many rock climbers (aka adrenaline junkies) flock to this section of Custer State Park for endless opportunities to get high.

And if your feet are begging to get back on solid ground, there are any number of exciting hiking trails to tax legs and lungs.  We chose to hike up to the summit of Harney Peak, highest peak in South Dakota, rising 7,242 feet above the surrounding terrain.  A stately old fire tower graces the summit and the views are breathtaking, weather permitting.

Tucked behind sparkling Sylvan Lake is a fascinating little hike that found us boulder hopping down into a plunging gorge and crossing a flowing creek so many times I lost count.  The Sunday Gulch Trail, only 3 miles in length, offers up some of the most unique landscape within Custer State Park.

Of course, after feeding the spirit the body begs for nourishment so a stop in the little town of Custer is highly recommended, where some of the best bison burgers can be found at Black Hills Burger and Buns Co., and a palette-pleasing flight of microbrews will call your name at Bitter Ester’s Brewhouse.

The Black Hills of South Dakota, sprawling land of intense diversity, begs to be savored, not rushed. We have left her northern hills of Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, and Sturgis for another visit.

68 thoughts on “A Step Back into the Old West ~ Black Hills, SD

  • Great post reminding me of a very fun trip I shared with my daughter. Has me wanting to return again real soon. Hmm, since I couldn’t do the Buffalo Round Up this year I think I’ll target next. Meet ya there?

  • A great place to eat while you are there is called the Alpine, in Hill City. Be there early as they line up to get in. We were there for dinner when all they serve is filet mignon. We drove by at 4:45 to see where it was, saw the line, so joined in. The Black Hills is a fun place to visit. Your pictures are wonderful
    as always.

  • LuAnn your photos really transport me to walking with you. I will have to study them more but i really have the feel of the place. Love the variety. the shot on the top right corner of the gallery where you talk about Needles highway is breathtaking.

    • I will admit to being pretty nervous about the bison, as I have seen what can happen when you get too close to these big fellas. We tried to keep our distance, letting him know we were there and he slowly kept moving forward. A storm was brewing so we really did not want to turn back around, as we were nearing the end of our hike at that point. Hope you are well Gunta.

  • You have done a great job of showing the beauty of the Black Hills. Your photos are beautiful. There is so much to see and do there we have made two trips there in the last few years and we still haven’t seen it all! On your next visit I would also add a trip to the Crazy Horse Monument and to Deadwood.

    • It is a beautiful part of our country. We unfortunately ran out of time to see everything we had wanted to see. Crazy Horse was on the list but it did not look like much had been done since our last visit so we passed. Deadwood and Spearfish are two places we want to go back to. Are you two headed anywhere fun this winter?

  • This was a fascinating post, LuAnn. It makes me want to go there, right away. Looks like some good hiking opportunities and unusual scenery to view.

  • We love the Black Hills! Visited two years in a row and still could go back for more. The first year we came from the east, and after driving across hundreds of miles of flat nothing those hills were a welcome change. The Needles Highway was my favorite, followed by Custer State Park. What a great area!

    • I don’t know why, but I wasn’t expecting too much from this part of the country. It is always nice to be pleasantly surprised and if I would have done my homework ahead of time, I most likely would have been prepared for what we saw. 😉 Thanks for stopping by Amanda.

    • We were surprised at how much we enjoyed the Black Hills. Would have liked to get to Deadwood and Spearfish Canyon but ran out of time. Lots of good hiking in the area. 🙂

  • Great pictures! We spent last summer there and did all those things, too! It’s such fun to revisit our travels through your eyes. Our grandkids joined us there and had such a great time. Hope all is well. -Linda

    • It is so wonderful to see kids embracing nature. Lovely memories you two are creating with your grandkids. Hope you two are well also. Look forward to meeting you both on the road someday. 🙂

  • These are my original stomping grounds exactly, LuAnn and Terry. I went to Black Hills State Teachers College in Spearfish and all of your photos and Black Hills experiences resonate in my nostalgic memory bank. Thanks for this and continue on a safe and interesting exploration of our great country………..RogerG

  • These are my original stomping grounds, LuAnn and Terry. Thanks for the trip through all of my nostalgic memories from this area. I went to Black Hills State Teachers College in Spearfish and all of these remind me of great times in the Black Hills. Be safe……Roger & Gayl

  • Mount Rushmore is such a big monument that doesn’t get the coverage it deserves, at least over on this continent. It is always good that your photos, not only capture the beauty of the well known but also those out of the way places that are equally fascinating and historical. You have a great eye for scenery.

  • Shoot, we missed Jewel Cave. Sounds like we missed a good one for sure.

    Egads…I would became a statue if I saw a bull bison on my trail. Not sure my legs would have moved.

    Harney Peak is one of our favorite hikes ever. Looks like you two have been experiencing the best of Black Hills.

    • We really loved the Black Hills. Harney Peak was a special treat for us as well.

      That bull bison made me a bit more nervous than Terry. We just didn’t have any room to maneuver if he had decided to get annoyed with us. Luckily he decided we weren’t worth expending much energy. 🙂

  • What a great trip! Look at the hiking you did at 7000′!! Way to go!! We are going to be great together. I love that hike with all the chains:) You found some really interesting places.

    We did these areas years ago on a motorcycle trip. We didn’t know that the tunnels were actually built to frame Mt. Rushmore until after we had taken photos and John was researching the road. Can you imagine building a road to curve certain ways to capture Mt. Rushmore!! Very clever!

    I love the bacon in the cave. This is my favorite formation. The cave we took our third graders to visit only had one piece. The students couldn’t wait til I would find it. No, I won’t be taking the Wild Cave tour either!!

    Thanks for sparking my interest in this area again, especially since we’ve never hiked in this area.

    • There are lots of great hikes in the Black Hills. Harney Peak was a nice treat but we still feel we have to pick up the pace to keep up with the two of you. I’m thinking that maybe the snow in Calgary is slowing you two down a bit. 😉

      Jewel Cave was not as spectacular as other caves we have explored but our ranger guide was very good. I’m with you, the bacon is one of my favorite cave formations.

  • Such beauty!
    And – you’re always pretty slick on adding educational tid-bits too.
    Sneaky – very sneaky. 😉
    So thoughtful of you to take the time to share such beauty & more while being busy with family matters.
    Take it easy & take care.

  • Such a gorgeous and interesting area, LuAnn! I haven’t been since I was about 7 years old, so it’s time for a return trip. 😉 We’d enjoy all of the hiking, and would like to be there for the bison round-up in September. Were you able to stay in one place and make short day trips to the trails, caves, etc.?

  • Nice post and good photo summary of the area LuAnn. We were in the Black Hills years ago, and it was cold enough to freeze the brass monkey, so we didn’t get out and about much. I’d like to return when the weather is better, but in that part of the world it’s feast or famine when it comes to weather. ~James

  • Oh my LuAnn, as I read this post I can’t tell you how many times I wish I could have hidden away in that house on wheels of yours to have visited these places. My two month assignment living (and photographing) in western South Dakota was, one of the most, if not the most memorable places (and assignments) of my life. There is a magic to the land, the light and the people there that is extraordinary and I’m so pleased you two had the chance to experience so much of it. Wishing you many more happy trails. ~Rick

    • Thanks Rick. We had planned to once again visit the Badlands but family issues earlier on had us changing our route. We loved the Black Hills so spent our time there and I went back to your blog for the magic of the Badlands, seen through your eyes. 🙂

  • This sounds like a place not to miss… lovely post (you do this so well)… That Mount Rushmore must be something to see…. read up on it, wow what an undertaking… can you imagine if a blast went wrong under such circumstances ??? It would have been a disaster…

  • Oh my Gravy on those adrenaline junkies. Geez! a girl seeker adventure. I’m the one who feels small now.
    Over 7,000 ft is very high. Do they have a cable lift? I’d take that instead. 😀 Ahihihi
    I wish to see the four Presidents.

    • You are too funny. Are you going to be in California at all this winter? We will be near Temecula for most of the winter and I would love to get you out on a hike. I will be gentle, I promise you. 🙂

  • All so beautiful and enticing, LuAnn, (and might I add potentially exhausting in an attempt to see as much as possible if I were actually there). And Ditto to what rickbraveheart and RoSy said too! xx

  • Thanks Penny and it was somewhat exhausting to try to see as much as possible. There are just some places that we suspect we won’t get back to so there is more of a sense of urgency to see what we can.

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