The Black Hills of South Dakota

Cathedral Spires from the Needles Highway

I visited the Black Hills in 1983 and put it on the top of my list of places to visit again. It only took 33 years! I’m finally back, and Doug is getting to see this beautiful place for the first time. Some of the tourist towns have grown, attractions have received face lifts, and more vacationers have discovered the Black Hills, yet it remains every bit as beautiful as I remembered…

In ’83, I unknowingly bicycled into the infamous (to everyone but me) motorcycle rally in Sturgis, SD. Being surrounded by thousands of huge, noisy motorcycles was a bit scary and intimidating at first, but once I had set up in the campground, many  of these friendly ‘bikers’ stopped by to chat with me, a totally other kind of ‘biker.’ One group offered me a ride through the sights by motorcycle which I quickly accepted, having never been on one. Although the speed allowed me to see so much more of the Black Hills than I could have by bicycle, I missed the chance to pedal these delightful ‘highways’ on my bike, passing into, over and around the many canyons and ridges and yes, tourist sites.

Well, we fixed that this time! We took a day to explore the Mount Rushmore area by bicycle. From our special stopping spot (more below), we found a pretty and untraveled back road taking us most of the way to the visitor center while avoiding the Labor Day traffic. The climb and descent around the famed stone faces allowed for views of the monument from three sides as well as vantage points for views of the Black Hills in all directions. One can’t visit Mount Rushmore without being awed. It took incredible imagination, a larger-than-life vision, and a great amount of funding to carve a statue from a mountain to honor four legendary Americans – Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Lincoln.

Washington, Jefferson, T Roosevelt, Lincoln, Shick

Our special stopping point was another Harvest Host site, this one pairing two thirsty bicyclists with the Naked Winery/Sick-N-Twisted Brewery. Great beer and pizza! Doug enjoyed his favorite craft brew of the trip so far, a chili/coffee stout called Sexy Senorita. Each sip was a brilliant progression of flavor moving from fruit (apricot?) through coffee and chocolate, to finish with a soft chili burn.

Back in our trusty Winnebago, we visited Crazy Horse, the Black Hills’ other great monumentous mountain carving, a monument in progress, a university, and a cultural center and museum honoring all Native Americans.

Privately managed and funded by donations, Crazy Horse is unfolding at a very different pace. It took 14 years to carve Rushmore. It’s taken 55 years (so far) to carve Crazy Horse. Although it’s come a very long way since ’83 (photo to come when I find and scan the totally retro, non-digital print), there’s likely still a couple of generations worth of work left to complete the project. Fortunately the sculptor’s grandkids have been born into the vision.

Crazy Horse – scale and actual

With a vision no less grand, the Needles Highway was designed and built in 1922 to ‘provide the grandest views and engage the senses in a masterpiece of engineering.’ Engineering, indeed. Doug masterfully took our RV through the narrow, twisty roads winding around the huge rock structures and granite cliffs. Twice. Technically, the RV may have fit through the Eye of the Needle Tunnel, with about 1 inch to spare on either side. We opted for a conservative option, driving up and down each side to take in all the views (and carefully scouting the drive on Google Earth to make sure we didn’t drive by the final turnaround opportunity approaching the tunnel!). Unsurprisingly, ours was the only motorhome we saw on that route.

The Iron Mountain Highway, another grand engineering feat built in 1933, winds through forests, including 3 tunnels that frame the faces at Mt Rushmore. The hills and canyons are so steep, the roads include spiral structures known as ‘pigtail bridges.’ Only one RV on this road as well. Ah, you’ll have to drive this one on your own – weather and timing precluded taking photos that resembled the subject matter in any way.

So, it wasn’t until I reread this entry that I realized… Many of the major attractions in the Black Hills, particularly those highlighted in this post, could be viewed as human-engineered tamperings with (rather than enhancements to) the natural beauty of the ponderosa pines and granite cliffs that define and distinguish the Black Hills. On the other hand, the human engineering demonstrates that mountains can be moved (literally) when we humans dream, imagine, and execute BIG, and there’s much to be learned from that. This will remain a conflict in my heart.

More Black Hills photos…

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