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.
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
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
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
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.