Black Hills, South Dakota
Black Hills Area SD Tourist Information
When I was a kid, my Dad took a wrong turn that led us up Iron Mountain. Now I’m not sure if things changed since then or if the drama of the moment warped my memory, but 30 years apart, I experienced two very different Iron Mountains.
The one from my youth was scarier than all get out. My Dad whipped up the mountain in our full-size family van at an accelerated pace cutting the wheel on hairpin mountain-side turns that had my Mom clutching the doorframe screaming for him to slow down or stop. My sister and I laughed aloud between terrified screams and my Dad was reminiscent of Jack Nicholson busting through a door with an axe in the movie The Shining saying, “He-e-e-re’s Johnny!”
This time, it was a pleasant ascent. And at one point, we came to a tunnel with people taking pictures of us. Well, not us but what was behind us. As my wife looked back she said, “WOW!” So we too pulled over on the other side of the tunnel on a stretch of road that was not built for so many people to park cars and walk away.
Seeing Mount Rushmore framed by a mountain tunnel was a pretty awesome sight. All of us had cameras out for what was a great photo-op.
Later, we neared the top of the mountain and pulled off to take a mini hike to see wildlife. We were treated with an enormous herd of deer. Spectacular!
Then we reached a large area offering tourist overlooks near the summit. It too provided views worthwhile.
When we descended down the other side of the mountain we didn't know where it would lead us, but we never turned back. It proved to be one of the best spontaneous decisions of the trip, as if this “detour” hadn’t already paid dividends.
We neared the bottom and later discovered we were in the 71,000 acre Custer State Park, home to nearly 1,500 bison/buffalo. Before seeing our first buffalo, we saw burros, pronghorn, mountain goats and elk. But as the saying goes, “you aint seen noth’n yet.”
Around a bend we had to slow down as if we were driving through one of those auto-nature safaris where animals come up to the car and you feed them. Only this was truly a wild setting and the last thing on our mind was feeding wild animals. But we did slow to a stop to take a picture of a buffalo on the edge of the road right next to us with only the opposite lane separating man from beast. Then, “HE’S CHARGING!” I hit the gas on the first grunt and darned if that thing didn’t lunge right at us.
With that adrenaline-lined moment still pumping blood in all of our hearts, we had two more buffalo come over a ridge from the opposite direction in full stride. For big animals they can move pretty quickly. Although they looked to be chasing each other we did not slow down. Once charged, twice shy …or something like that.
Another blind bend and another surprise. This time we had to come to a complete stop. A couple cars ahead of us disappeared in the herd as I’m sure our SUV did to anyone coming up behind us. It took close to 30 minutes to navigate like inch worms through the maze of bison swallowing the road and countryside all around us. I was talking out loud, “PLEASE, don’t scratch the paint fella,” worried about the new vehicle unsure if buffalo encounters were covered by my insurance.
Then there it was, “Dad, I have to go to the …”
THE BLACK HILLS
No-o-o-w we're "out west!" I was thrilled along with the rest of the family. After waking up in a nice but over-priced hotel in downtown Rapid City, I stepped into the hall to get the morning paper and did something spontaneous to get a quick laugh from the kids. I was in my underwear, bare-chested and as I stepped into the hall, I stretched my arms out and beat my chest in a comical primal manner. Little did I realize this blip of a moment would forever be remembered and retold EVERYTIME our trip comes up in conversation with the kids around.
As they say, it's the little moments that count but in the Black Hills, there are enough big moments and sights to burn images into everlasting memories.
Having gained an hour due to the time change and finally getting a solid night’s sleep, we were ready to take on the day. And what a day we had planned. But first, I had to take a quick jaunt up Iron Mountain for old-time’s sake (click here to take this “Detour”).
Since the trip up and down Iron Mountain and through Custer State Park ate up so much time, we realized we had to tamper with the itinerary so we could still see the Mammoth Site, Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore. Although we technically just saw Mount Rushmore, and considering I’ve seen it by day once before, we decided we’d hit it after dinner instead of calling it a night.
The Mammoth Site was something that had accidentally been discovered in 1974. It wasn’t until recent years that it became a world-class museum and tourist attraction. A few people highly recommended it when we announced our vacation plans so we decided it had to be worked into the agenda. It was a bit of a drive south compared to the cluster of attractions in the Rapid City area. As we weaved through the motor-lodge stretch en route to Hot Springs, SD, sign after sign revealed deals at decent looking motels with clean looking pools. I had buyer’s remorse and wished I had looked into lodging options more thoroughly when our "Triple-A lady" said we needed to pre-book lodging in this area to guarantee a nearby place to stay.
It was lunchtime when we arrived at the Mammoth Site. We had a picnic on a blanket in the grass under shade trees. Like a flashback to the old station wagon days of family travel, we weren’t the only family with the cost-saving healthy picnic idea. It was very peaceful.
Mammoth time. As was typical of me, I was not sold on this site as being all that but decided to check it out anyway, albeit reluctantly.
When we entered, we had to wait a bit for a full group of people to gather for the next tour. I kept looking at my watch wondering if we had time to get back and see Crazy Horse. Then the doors opened and we entered and I wanted to go nuts on my own to absorb the fascinating scene. But I stayed with the group and learned a lot!
The Mammoth Site just happens to be the largest mammoth research facility on the planet. You can actually tour an active paleontological dig site making this all the more cool. We witnessed first-hand, a scientific excavation. In fact, the floor was the earth and the building was built over top of the active dig site. Excavation was happening right before our eyes! Where else can you witness such an extraordinary event?
In this concentrated area there are more than 50 fossilized remains of Cambrian and Wooly Mammoths unearthed approximately 26,000 years after they mistook a sink-hole for a watering hole. Ironically, if not comically, they were all male. Go figure.
Anyway, the tour was definitely interesting. After the guide walked us to every part of the dig, he turned us loose to take pictures and wander around on our own. In addition to the scientific excavation, visitors are treated to a working paleontology laboratory, hands-on activities, Ice-Age exhibit hall, walk-in Mammoth bone hut and junior paleontologist dig.
The Mammoth Site rocked and now we had to roll back up to the Black Hills.
It was late afternoon when we arrived at Crazy Horse Memorial. Pulling in I already noticed the progress made over the past 30 years since I was here last.
Crazy Horse isn’t just a mountain carving, although it is the largest in the world, and it isn’t just about one Indian chief or one sculptor either. It is a work in progress representing a complex myriad of importance.
When I was here last, as a kid, what stood out in my mind was a bullet ridden sign out front. The Crazy Horse Memorial withstood much opposition in its early days and has grown into a first-class American success story.
A sculptor who had been involved with the Mount Rushmore project was invited by Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear to build a mountain memorial honoring the cultures, traditions and living heritage of North American Indians. On June 3, 1948 Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began work on a mission that would consume his life and most of his family’s well past his death in 1982. The blasting and carving of the mountain continues today and when it is completed, the entire mountain will not just be a carving on the face of the rock, it will be a 360˚ sculpture 641 feet by 563 feet in-the-round of Chief Crazy Horse erupting out of the mountain with his horse. Crazy Horse’s stone head is large enough in itself to house all of Mount Rushmore’s presidential busts.
The project is completely funded by the money spent by visitors, donations and other private contributions. It was decided from the beginning that no federal or government money would be accepted due to the fear of losing control of Ziolkowski ‘s and Standing Bear’s vision.
The Crazy Horse experience isn’t just the incredible visual of the work-in-progress. There is much more. For starters, there’s a 40,000 square foot museum dedicated to the history and culture of North American Indians. In addition, there’s a Native American Cultural Center with artisans at work and wares for sale. While browsing the endless array of beautiful creations throughout the buildings, my daughter took particular interest in the native tales about Devil’s Tower. She was so enthralled by the folklore, it would again spontaneously change the itinerary of our trip the very next day. But that’s a story (or “detour”) for the next stop on “Holiday Road.”
Like the mountain itself, everything is enormous in proportion at Crazy Horse Memorial, including the gift shop. As with the morning incident, it’s often the little things or free things that make the lasting memories of a family vacation. I think the Ziolkowski family understands that. While we were there, a big bin of nice rounded fist-size (okay –double-fist-size and some triple) rocks from the Crazy Horse mountain blast site were offered free for the taking. Now the kids have a piece of Crazy Horse in their own backyard and it didn’t have to cost Dad a penny, but we left a donation.
Dinner-time. Back at the hotel that was too nice for our purpose, we decided to walk to a restaurant (See “Pit Stop”).
Once we were done with dinner, we had one more calling – Mount Rushmore!
When we arrived, it was dark, windy and cold …really cold. We bundled up and made our way to the main building. Outside, a crowd gathered. But we needed warmth so we ducked inside and got lost …in the stories of this fascinating place. For example, Mount Rushmore National Monument is incomplete. Unlike Crazy Horse, when Rushmore’s sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, died in 1941 so did the project after his son tried to carry on for several months before halting the project all together. It remains unfinished to this day. Another point of interest that doesn’t seem to dawn on anyone is why the name “Rushmore?” The answer is simple. An attorney from New York City by the name of Charles E. Rushmore was sent to the area in 1884 to check property titles. He asked the name of the mountain. It didn’t have one so locals named it “Rushmore" after the inquisitive attorney.
It is no coincidence that Crazy Horse was built nearby Rushmore’s monument. The Native Americans took offense to Rushmore being carved on their lands and answered with a sculpture of their own only more grandiose in scale and design. Rushmore's museum is filled with great gems of information about the history and people involved with the building this iconic piece of American history honoring Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Noise outside grew as did the nighttime crowd despite the cold. It was drizzling to boot. None-the-less, tired kids and all, we braved the elements for what turned out to be such a touching ceremony, we all had goose bumps (unrelated to the weather conditions).
The evening ceremony takes place in an outdoor amphitheater with the monument center stage. The ranger talk was inspirational as it focused on the Presidents and rung of patriotism and our history. It was followed by the film Freedom: America's Lasting. It climaxed with rousing music and illumination of the memorial creating a very moving experience. I was proud to be American!
It’s uncanny how unforeseen obstacles can create a better result than what was originally planned. Sometimes, it's just best to blow with the wind.
Dit dit dit doot it. Welcome to Sanford’s. If you think a junkyard is the last place you’d go for a good dinner and fun time, you’re wrong.
Located in Rapid City, Sanford’s entertained the kids even though they’ve never seen Redd Foxx. They just knew this was a unique setting for eating. It isn’t everyday that you eat at a restaurant with light fixtures fashioned from washtubs and TVs buried in a hodge podge of discarded items more commonly strewn about a junkyard. And we liked it! – So much in fact that it served us dinner two nights in a row when we swore to try a different eatery every night.
The montage of junk a.k.a. art, was a sight that set the imagination on fire. As a bonus, the food was tasty and the price was right.
To sum up Sanford’s in a word – CHARMING.