Black Hills and Badlands
Born out of convulsions within the earth's crust, shaped by wind and water, South Dakota's Black Hills have witnessed the drama of the West unfold—from the struggles of the Lakota Sioux to the rush of gold fever-striken miners to the battles of conservationists looking to preserve these natural wonders for future generations.
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Blacker than tar, the mountain’s silhouette was barely visible against South Dakota’s night sky. A hush gripped the crowd, threatening to strangle even the slightest whisper. Slowly the lights came up. The giant, stone visages looked out into the darkness as a lone bagpipe player stood atop them, letting the first notes of "Amazing Grace" tumble down to those below. Unexpected goose bumps rose up and down my arms. This grand spectacle marked the completion of Mount Rushmore’s 10-year rebuilding project.
"We’re celebrating our first wedding anniversary," one young Minnesota couple told me as I snapped their picture on the Grandview Terrace. I imagined them 49 years from now, smiling at each other and thinking, We’ll always have Rushmore.
It seems as if we’ve always had Rushmore.The collective image of George, Tom, Teddy, and Abe has been appearing in advertisements, cartoons, and films for so long it’s hard to imagine that the completed monument has been around for fewer than 60 years. Perhaps this instant familiarity is what’s responsible for turning the parking lot into a point of convergence for license plates from across the nation. People come here because they knowthis place, are inspired by it. They can marvel at the artistic achievement and feel their patriotism stir.
Yet for all the familiarity with Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills surrounding it remain a stranger, albeit an attractive one. Early in this century, both President Theodore Roosevelt and U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck saw this area as something that needed to be preserved. Arriving in Rapid City, I found an area map dotted with evocative names—Needles, Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Devil’s Tower, Badlands. The drama they implied made it clear that those straying off I-90 only for a quick picture of the ex-presidents were shortchanging themselves.
Rapid City’s impressive Journey Museum serves as an excellent set of interactive Cliff Notes to the area. You weave your way through 2.5 billion years of history, beginning with the geologic forces that thrust the Black Hills into existence. As you stroll along, an audio "wand" allows you to stop and learn more of, say, techniques used in archaeological excavation or the 1890 massacre of Lakota Sioux by US troops at Wounded Knee. Undoubtedly the most impressive exhibits are related to the Lakota. Ceremonial clothing adorned with yellow and red feathers and intricate beadwork reveal the culture’s sophisticated level of artistry.
I wandered out into this expanse as shifting shadows played across the rugged pillars with toadstool-like caps and craggy spires. The ground was dry and cracked, sometimes curling up like broken pottery. Occasionally, a lone wildflower or patch of grass would soak up the rays with me, but the eerie silence was all mine.
Recognizing a spiritual quality in the Black Hills, both the Sioux and the Cheyenne infused their cultures with a healthy dose of respect for this land. It was, after all, their home. It provided for them, answered their prayers, and accepted their offerings. A testament to the strength of these beliefs exists at one of their sacred sites in what is now Bear Butte State Park, near Sturgis. Along the trail to the butte’s summit, trees and bushes are continually strung with prayer offerings of colorful ribbons and strips of cloth.
During the rowdy days of the Old West, the frontier became romanticized and names became legends. Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Custer—they become a bit more tangible here, but that won’t dampen the poetic, heroic, and tragic impressions you might bring with you. Perhaps the only pang of disappointment was a brief stop in Deadwood. This former gold rush town, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot from behind while playing cards, now relies on gambling revenue. Trying to envision gunslingers and gold miners while glitzy signs call out to buses loaded with mild-mannered folks in search of nickel slots is as hard as it sounds.
Regardless of how much history you soak up, it all takes a back seat when you turn a corner to find a 2,000-pound bison hanging out by the side of the road. The prairie lands of Custer State Park, southwest of Rapid City, were once the stomping ground for mammoths and saber-toothed cats. Today, they’re a regular drive-through safari with people pulling over to snap pictures of grazing bison and yapping prairie dogs. I wound through the rocky spires of the aptly named Needles Highway to Sylvan Lake. It was one foot in front of the other from here to the top of 7,242-foot Harney Peak, highest point in the Black Hills. After climbing for a little over an hour, I reached the pay- off: an eye-popping view of Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska.
The following morning, I swapped the car for a saddle and toured the park’s French Creek area. Custer’s 1874 expedition discovered gold here. Our gold came in the form of fields of sunflowers along the banks of the creek. A pair of mule deer popped their heads up to watch us crisscross the creek, before slipping out of sight again. As we rode out of a grove of pines, three bighorn sheep above us knocked some loose rocks our way, spooking the horses. I considered it a personal achievement that I wasn’t bucked off in front of my born-in-the-saddle cowboy guide.
At Wind Cave National Park, Custer’s southern neighbor, the same geologic forces that gave rise to the Black Hills left a lot of cracks in the earth. Water eventually seeped in and carved out endless underground works of art. It’s estimated that the 80 miles of tunnels that have been mapped are only about 5 percent of the entire system, making it one of the most extensive known cave networks on the planet.
The park service offers several walking tours daily, but their duck-and-crawl caving tour into the subterranean wilds was my raison d’être.Because it’s offered only a handful of weeks in summer, fewer than 600 people a year actually take this tour. Eager to play explorer, I counted my blessings in getting a reservation. For four hours, an intrepid group including a couple from Nebraska, two students on a road trip to Seattle, an outdoorsman from Spokane, me, and a guide wormed our way through small holes and slunk around on our bellies for a glimpse of paper-thin sheets of calcite known as boxwork, needle-like soda straw stalactites, crystalline bursts of frostwork, and other oddities. About halfway through, our guide urged us to stop and shut off our lights. Black never seemed blacker as the silence rang out. Before anyone could crack, the lights were back and the slithering continued. We emerged from the cool, dry underground wearing smiles and souvenir dirt.
The smaller but no less impressive Jewel Cave National Monument is about 35 miles west of Wind Cave. Jewel-like calcite crystals, from which the cave gets its name, practically coat the walls. Ribbons of orange, yellow, and rust colored "draperies" hang among the dogtooth and nailhead spar formations. The metal walkways that lead through the large, open chambers give you the feeling you’re touring the secret hideout of some James Bond baddie.
Back toward Rushmore, work continues on the mammoth Crazy Horse Memorial. For more than 50 years, this tribute has been emerging from its mountain with the nine-story face finally seeing completion last year. A little imagination helps to picture the finished product—the great Sioux chief astride his horse pointing out to the land he fought for. When completed it will edge out Rushmore as the world’s largest work of art. Till then, this grand undertaking stands as a symbol of both the Sioux nation and the dedication of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski.
Two places just outside of the Black Hills remained on my list of sites to see. One was two hours west of Rapid City into Wyoming—the 800-foot-high monolith known as Devils Tower. Though thrust up from the rolling grasslands, it’s actually the erosion of the ground around it that left this stubby column of volcanic rock standing alone.
The Red Beds Trail loop offered the best way to take in the tower’s fractured columns and surroundings. Close encounters of the white-tailed deer kind is what I got—a soft-footed doe tiptoed by a mere 10 feet away with nary a glance. The trail wound on through tall pines, patches of the yellow-flowered groundsel, and over a stretch of rust-red siltstone above the Belle Fourche River.
High above, two climbers disappeared around the curve of the tower as they made their ascent. I dropped down to the river, past a prairie dog town where the residents went "barking" about their business, and then back to the visitor center to wrap up the day.
The final geologic spectacle took me east of Rapid City. The Lakota knew it as maco sica,or "land bad," but that did little to quash the fascination with the arid, wind-sculpted terrain that is Badlands National Park. Wrapped around these jagged, sun-bleached peaks and gullies, the open prairie of Buffalo Gap National Grassland reaches out to the horizon. Ice Age mammals that once dominated the area now rest here in fossilized abundance.
When I asked about the impact of the park’s open country hiking policy, a ranger explained how it pales to the inch-a-year level of erosion nature inflicts. "Besides," he added with a smile, "most people don’t stray too far from the road." Too bad for them.
So I wandered out into this expanse as shifting shadows played across the rugged pillars with toadstool-like caps and craggy spires. The ground was dry and cracked, sometimes curling up like broken pottery. Occasionally, a lone wildflower or patch of grass would soak up the rays with me, but the eerie silence was all mine. Like Rushmore, this place too was carved—only here by wind and water. The day was disappearing, and the whitewashed look of the plateaus at high noon faded like a mood-ring into purple, red, and brown strata of geologic time. As I took one last look around, goose bumps once again dotted my arms.
The Fab Four of Stone
Suppose you had the task of tackling a project like Mount Rushmore today. Assuming you have the perfect site, what’s next? Well, given today’s political landscape, you might want to consider your subjects carefully. How about heroes of a different sort like, say, Michael Jordan, Harrison Ford, or Madonna? Now you’ve attracted the attention of corporate sponsors who are more than happy to help you in exchange for rights to peddle "official" merchandise. Next, there’s that environmental impact report. And don’t forget the public relations machine needed to handle the protesters of every decision from the choice of subjects to the companies you do business with.
Things were a bit simpler back in 1924 when South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson contacted sculptor Gutzon Borglum with a proposal for a monument in the Black Hills. Inspired by the setting, Borglum signed on, and work began in 1927. From the outset, financing proved to be the biggest hurdle, despite the best efforts of people like Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota. In 1934, the federal government finally agreed to direct appropriations, contributing $836,000 to the project’s nearly $1 million total.
One by one the 60-foot-tall heads began to emerge, peering out at the heart of the country. Borglum envisioned sculpting the presidents to the waist and adding a museum-like Hall of Records on the history of the United States, but it was not to be. Shortly after his death in 1941, the nation’s attention shifted to the war in Europe and the Pacific. Sensing that funds might soon disappear, Borglum’s son Lincoln completed some minor touches and declared the work done just weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nearly 60 years later, it remains the world’s largest work of art—a title it may someday relinquish to the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial.
The Ex-Presidents Get The Vote
So why did these four guys get picked anyway? The original plan was to honor heroes of the West such as Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, and Jedediah Smith. In the end, the decision was made to create a memorial to the principles of freedom on which the country was founded. Four presidents reflecting these ideals were chosen: Washington for being father of the country; Jefferson for crafting the Declaration of Independence and expanding the nation with the Louisiana Purchase; Lincoln, Borglum’s favorite, for helping to preserve the union; and Roosevelt for championing the rights of the working man.
In 1998, a sweeping redevelopment of the monument was finished. The 10-year, $56 million project included a visitor center and museum; the Presidential Trail near the base of the monument; a 2,000-seat amphitheater; the Grandview Terrace viewing platform; the Avenue of Flags promenade; and Borglum Court, dedicated to all those involved in the monument’s creation.
This article was first published in May 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Take along AAA’s North Centraland Idaho/Montana/WyomingTourBooks as well as the North Dakota/South Dakotaand Colorado/Wyomingmaps. Information may also be obtained from the Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 487-3223.