- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003

South Dakota? Why would anyone go there on one of their valuable weeks of vacation? Mount Rushmore? That’s in Washington state, right?The “great faces, great places” state might be considered a neglected, and often misunderstood, getaway destination. Even I was not altogether thrilled about a trip to the Black Hills, but it would be an educational experience for our daughter, I thought, and besides, my wife, a native South Dakotan, was insistent.

The trip blew me away. The sights are unbelievable.

The Black Hills are great for a family vacation — but you’ll be just as thrilled if you don’t have children.

“Travelers continue to look for destinations that they perceive as comfortable, safe and familiar,” says Lee Harstad of the South Dakota Department of Tourism. People are “looking to connect with family and friends, and they’ll choose vacations and places that give them a sense of belonging. South Dakota has a number of such places.”

If you want some validation on just how nice the area is, the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway, which runs through the Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park areas, was chosen recently by the Society of American Travel Writers as one of the 10 most beautiful drives through scenic America.

The 70-mile drive encompasses Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road and features hairpin curves, granite spires, pigtail bridges and three granite tunnels that frame the four famous presidents in the distance. Can you name them?

STARTING POINT

Rapid City was established in 1876 by prospectors who were interested in finding gold.

The city was named after the creek that flows through a geologic formation on the edge of the Black Hills known as “the Gap.” In the early part of World War II, Rapid City Air Base, now Ellsworth Air Force Base, was established six miles northeast of the city. With a population of more than 60,000, Rapid City has become the eastern gateway to the Black Hills.

If you are on a family vacation, the city’s Dinosaur Park is a must. Inviting in its simplicity, the free park features seven life-size concrete dinosaur replicas. Children (and adults) are free to climb and slide on the majestic beasts. The park itself offers a great view of the city, as it sits high atop Skyline Drive.

One of the signature souvenirs of South Dakota is Sioux pottery, and Rapid City is home to a factory where you can see the pottery being made and decorated by Lakota artists.

WARM UP IN HOT SPRINGS

The warm, therapeutic waters of the Minnekahta Valley have been enjoyed by people and animals through the centuries. Recreational and health factors brought humans here, beginning with early nomadic peoples, through the Cheyenne and Lakota Indian cultures and on to present-day residents or visitors.

In the 1880s, the city of Hot Springs was founded, its name derived from the natural warm springs found here. With the arrival of the railroad in 1891, thousands came into the town yearly for the medicinal attributes of the “healing water.” The Hot Springs Historic District was built largely during this boom.

The city is still famous for the world’s largest natural warm-water (87 degrees) swimming pool, Evans Plunge.

A more recent addition to the town’s popularity is the Mammoth Site, a National Natural Landmark, which has the largest concentration of Colombian and woolly mammoth bones in the world.

Visitors can tour this renowned paleontological site, where a large number of mammoths died thousands of years ago.

Nine miles north of Hot Springs is the entrance to Wind Cave National Park, a 28,000-acre wildlife preserve above an approximately 71-mile cave. A number of wildlife species roam outside, and guided Wind Cave tours below give a view of what it’s like deep inside the Black Hills.

Park Ranger Amy Dozier took us 300 steps down into the cave. Our descent ended in the Assembly Room, where, according to Miss Dozier, “brass-band concerts and even wedding receptions were held in this room in the 1930s and 1940s.” Imagine that; getting cold feet on your wedding day would make for a long hike out of the cave. Today, an elevator takes visitors and park employees back to ground level.

This cave is significant in that it features unique formations referred to as boxwork. Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns offers dogtooth spar crystals, and Black Hills Caverns lets you get up close to stalactites, stalagmites, helictites and rare logomites.

CUSTER STATE PARK

Located near the city that was named after Gen. George Armstrong Custer, Custer State Park is one of the most beautiful areas of the Black Hills.

The 73,000-plus-acre park allows you to get a close-up view of wildlife roaming on gorgeous, green, hilly pastures or climbing rocky terrain. There also are pristine lakes in which to fish.

I mentioned Needles Highway earlier, but a trek on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road is also a must.

A week’s pass was a value at $10 per adult. It was the best $20 we spent on the trip (other than some fine dining experiences).

The park is home to one of the largest publicly owned buffalo herds in the world. The buffalo are wild, so they can be dangerous. They’re also deceptively quick — a bison can reach a speed of 35 mph, according to park officials.

The park has many signs warning visitors to be very cautious if a herd approaches the vehicle.

The day before our visit, a tourist got a little too close: He was gored in the rump but lived to tell about it (minor injuries). The local newscast led its late news with the headline, “Buffalo 2, Tourists 0,” as this man was the second victim this summer. You shouldn’t miss these creatures — just treat them with respect.

We also got a chance to see mountain sheep, pronghorn antelope, whitetail and blacktail deer, mountain goats, wild burros, and prairie dogs and more prairie dogs. There also are supposed to be hundreds of elk living in the park, but they did a good job of hiding from us.

CUSTER, THE TOWN

Custer has the distinction of being the first city established in the Black Hills, in 1875, and has a rich history of mining, lumbering, ranching and, of course, tourism.

In 1948, Korczak Ziolkowski chose a mountain just north of Custer for the carving of Lakota Indian leader Crazy Horse. The nine-story face was completed in 1998. Work began in 2000 to block out the 22-story horse’s head.

An annual June Volksmarch allows hikers to get a close-up view of the progress being made on the world’s largest sculpture.

MOUNT RUSHMORE

Gold mining gave Keystone its name in 1891 as the Keystone Gold Mine was founded. For many years, the fortunes of this town depended on the mineral markets — gold, feldspar, cassiterite (tin), arsenic and pegmatite all have been mined in or around the area.

Tourism replaced mining as Keystone’s niche in the late 1920s. In 1927, Gutzon Borglum chose nearby Mount Rushmore for a carving of four American presidents.

Today, Keystone is a seasonal community that caters primarily to the millions of guests that visit Mount Rushmore every year.

The sculpture of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt is the most visited attraction in the Black Hills, drawing an estimated 2.5 million visitors each year, according to the state’s Department of Tourism.

It really is an inspiring sight.

The national memorial has a 5,000-seat amphitheater, interpretive center and theaters, scenic hiking trail, restaurant, gift shop and bookstore.

No admission is charged to see George, Thomas, Teddy or Abe, but there is an $8 parking fee.

If you want to see the other side of Keystone, check out the Big Thunder Gold Mine. Black Hills gold is another souvenir you can’t leave behind, and there are many outlets for it throughout the area.

HILL CITY

While the “Heart of the Hills” was once referred to as “a town with a church on each end and a mile of hell in between,” the activities of Hill City have quieted in the past century.

As the Black Hills gold rush continued in early 1876, a group of central hills miners decided to stake their claim along Spring Creek.

This scenic area came to be known as Hillyo, and it was later renamed Hill City.

Gold finds later that year in the northern hills reduced the town to a ghost town for a period, but new finds and the tin mining boom brought the settlement back to life in the mid-1880s.

The town was wild and wide open — 15 saloons and their customers made for an exciting time.

Hill City’s famous 1880 Train provides the opportunity to experience train travel as it was a century ago.

ALONG THE WAY

On your way to many of these attractions, you’ll journey along U.S. 16.

There are dozens of options for the young and old, including Reptile Gardens, which was named one of USA Today’s “Top 10 Places in the U.S. to Stop the Car and Take a Look.” The world’s largest reptile collection and largest collection of the deadliest snake species co-exist with beautiful tropical orchids and a prairie-dog town.

Other great attractions along U.S. 16 include Flying T Chuckwagon Supper and Show, Bear Country USA, Old MacDonald’s Farm and the National Presidential Wax Museum, just to name a few.

If you plan your trip anytime near the first week of August, you’ll likely share the road with legions of motorcycles.

The mostly Harley-riding bikers will be in the area for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which is north of Rapid City.

We had just three days to spend in the area (we spent the rest of the week in the eastern part of the state with relatives), but I suggest you stay for at least a week.

On our next trip, we hope to spend some time in the northern area of the Black Hills and eastern Wyoming, where Devils Tower National Monument is located.


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