at Custer State Park in southwest South Dakota.
RUSHMORE, S.D. — As fall begins, the light is as golden
as the prairie. The sky is big and blue. This year, with
lots of rain, the hills of ponderosa pines undulate in a
deep, thick green carpet so solid that the hills really do
can see why American Indians revere this land so, and why
a sculptor spent 14 years hanging off the edge of a cliff
to chisel its fine granite.
Black Hills shout of the vibrant West.
whisper of a far older past.
the 2.2 million visitors that Mount Rushmore gets each
year, I’d guess about 2.1 million of them zoom up, spend
a couple of hours, then speed off. That is such a mistake.
This region where the West and Midwest collide has a rich
cultural texture and an eternity’s worth of sweeping
scenery, far more than just a mountain with four heads.
(And by the way, if those heads could talk they would back
me up on this — they’ve been gazing at the scenery for
73 years and have, oh, about 7.2 million more years before
eroding, geologists say.)
spent five days in this southwest corner of South Dakota,
and I have to say I will add it to my unexpected favorite
travel spots, along with Memphis, Mexico City and Krakow,
Black Hills, like those places, delivers more than
let me do a little rundown on my personal highlights, and
you can then make your own trip.
Rushmore National Memorial: You see the throngs of
tourists snapping away on their cameras as they get a
first glimpse of the famous sight in person. But walk
closer. And closer. And closer. A nice, wide pavilion
gives you the classic view.
the Presidential Trail and you’ll get so close you can
look up the nostrils of the 60-foot-high sculptures of
Presidents Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson and Teddy
Roosevelt. Visit sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s studio and a
museum that tells the story of how Mount. Rushmore was
built between 1927 and 1941 with ingenuity and pure
the evening illumination ceremony, which is basically just
a long video with a few patriotic songs thrown in and a
white light shining on the heads.
For two days, I based myself in Keystone, a tourist town
two miles from the memorial. Keystone is an old mining
town that struck it rich with the incoming tourist throngs
of Mount Rushmore, but it retains its rough, Western
took the 1880 Train, a steam train between Keystone and
Hill City. I ate buffalo stew at the Ruby House
Restaurant, with its lush red flocked wallpaper and rifles
on the walls. I breathed the clear, high air in the
4,500-foot altitude. From my hotel room window at the K
Bar S Lodge I could see the profile of George Washington
at Mount Rushmore.
Horse Memorial: A must-see to complement Mount Rushmore 17
miles away. In 1948 sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (and
eventually his wife and 10 children) began a sculpture
taller than the pyramids of Egypt to honor the Oglala
that the 87-foot-high head is finally finished, you can
easily imagine how the entire completed sculpture will
amaze folks long after we’re dead and gone. Take the
small bus tour as close as it can get to the fierce pink
granite memorial. The site also has a nice American Indian
museum and a good restaurant.
Highway and the Iron Mountain Road, Custer State Park:
From Crazy Horse I backtracked slightly and took the
Needles Highway. It is not for the faint of heart. With
switchbacks and drop-offs as it passes pointy spires of
ancient granite, the 14-mile drive has vistas worth
stopping for — if only you can find a place to stop. At
one point, a one-way tunnel blasted through the granite is
barely 8 feet wide.
Iron Mountain Road, connecting the heart of Custer State
Park with Keystone, is more accessible and equally as
charming. Each of its three tunnels frames a view of Mount
Rushmore. It also has curlicue "pigtail" bridges
that twist around to maximize the views on the 17-mile
of these trails are partly inside Custer State Park and
part of a scenic loop called the Peter Norbeck Scenic
herd, Custer State Park: I spent two days at the classic
State Game Lodge in Custer State Park, a 71,000-acre park
that is the nation’s second-largest state park after the
Adirondacks. The south part of the park is a vast prairie
environment where 1,400 buffalo roam — descendants of 38
buffalo rescued by conservationists that were turned loose
here in 1914. You can drive yourself, but I took a Jeep
safari that located several hundred animals still in
mating season, with the bulls clumsily courting the lady
Buffalo Jump: An hour west of Rapid City is Beulah, Wyo.,
and a significant archaeological site. In the 16th-18th
centuries, before they had horses, Plains Indians hunted
the buffalo on foot, where they were forced to jump down
into the pit. There’s a brand new visitors center here.
pass the interesting South Dakota towns of Sturgis and
Deadwood, plus Spearfish Canyon, on the way to Beulah.
City: I flew in and out of the airport at South Dakota’s
second largest city (population 70,000), which is just 22
miles from Mount Rushmore. Rapid City has trendy
restaurants and bars, plus major souvenir shopping.
City — like the whole trip — was not at all what I
expected. It was far better.
Rushmore Memorial: $11 parking fee; the park is free; 1300
Highway 244, Keystone (,
800-732-5682. It comes with maps.
BLACK HILLS TIPS
Pick up local brochures in shops when you get there; many
have coupons for discounts on attractions.
Don’t hike alone. Trails in Custer State Park not only
can be steep, but you may meet a buffalo on the trail;
also ticks, rattlesnakes, poison ivy.
No, your camper won’t fit on the Needles Highway.
Hairpin turns are 280 degrees, plus one tunnel is only 8
feet, 4 inches wide and 12 feet high.
Unless you love motorcycles, don’t come during the
annual Sturgis motorcycle rally. Sturgis is northwest of
Rapid City. This year, 500,000 bikers showed up. Next year
on the 75th anniversary they expect 1 million. Rally dates
are Aug. 3-9, 2015, and Aug. 8-14, 2016.
Try the local beer; I like Canyon Cream Ale by Crow Peak
Try at least one odd attraction. Mixed in with the
grandeur are quirky attractions: panning for gold at the
Big Thunder Gold Mine in Keystone, the free Dinosaur Park
in Rapid City, the Black Hills Maze, Reptile Gardens.
Visit the "Dances With Wolves" movie set, Fort
Hays near Rapid City. The entire film was made in South
Dakota in 1989 — at these buildings, in nearby Spearfish
Canyon and north of Pierre on a buffalo ranch. Very
Gifts and souvenirs: Buy chunks of rose quartz, yellow
lepidolite or other South Dakota minerals and rocks at the
many rock shops; Black Hills gold jewelry; I liked the
Prairie Edge Gallery in Rapid City.
Read before you come: "Crazy Horse: A Life" by
Larry McMurtry (Penguin, $14.99).