If you’ve read Stop Sixteen – Part One, welcome back to Rapid City, South Dakota! If you haven’t, I invite you to visit that blog entry as well. They are independent of each other. This entry covers the more traditional reasons people come to this part of the country. When you leave the valley floor in Rapid City, elevation 3,245 feet, it’s a long climb up the mountains to the towns of Keystone, Hill City, and Custer, elevation 5,315 feet. It is an absolutely beautiful drive, but there isn’t much out there other than the attractions we visited and ATV rental, a water park, hiking and fishing, Jewel Cave National Monument and much more. It’s a forty minute drive back to malls, shopping, and the big city. At night when you crest over the hill the entire Rapid City Valley floor twinkles in the night like a horizontal Christmas tree!
The Crazy Horse Memorial is just outside the town of Custer. The site not only encompasses the memorial, but The Indian Museum of North America and The Indian University of North America as well. The Crazy Horse Memorial is a mountain monument under construction on privately held land in the Black Hills. When finished, it will depict the Oglala Lakota Warrior, Crazy Horse, riding a horse and pointing to his tribal land. The carving of the mountain began in 1948 by sculpture Korczak Ziolkowski to create a tribute to the North American Indians to show that “the red man has great hero’s, also.” When finished it will be 564 feet high by 640 feet long. The head alone is 87 feet tall. There is no prediction of when the memorial will be finished. There are currently fifteen people working on the next section, Monday thru Friday, but every time there is a lightening strike in the area, they have to evacuate and wait a half hour for the all clear, to return to the mountain. I think another factor is the funding. The Memorial staff is very proud of the fact they have accepted no federal funding. The actual construction is paid for by contributions and admission fees. The other employees are paid by the profits from the gift shop, snack shop, and the bus ticket you purchase to take you from the parking lot to the base of the mountain for a closer look. Just outside the Indian Museum are the Nature Gates, decorated with the silhouettes of 219 animals past and present indigenous to South Dakota. At night the Memorial presents a multi media laser light show, “Legends In Light.” which tells the story to illuminate our cultural diversity.
Nearby and also inside the 71,000 acre Custer State Park is the famous Needles Highway. aka SD 87. This fourteen mile road passes by Sylvan Lake and is a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needle like granite formations which seem to pierce the horizon along the highway. The hillsides are covered in mica, which glistens in the sunlight. Is that where “There’s gold in them thar hills comes from?” You’ve probably seen the photos of tour buses passing through the tunnels? We passed thru two tunnels, Needles Eye, 8′ wide by 9’9″ high and Iron Creek, 8’9″ wide by 10’10” high. We didn’t see any tour buses on our drive, but not only can I not figure out how they fit thru the tunnels, I don’t know how they get there. The road is continuous hair pin turns. The road does have speed limit signs. Let me interpret: 30 miles per hour means you are going to make a sharp turn to the left, and then to the right, and then back to the left again. 20 miles per hour means you better keep on your side of the road and hope the oncoming car does as well. And 10 miles per hour means you are going to make a 180 degree turn while going down a steep hill.
And then there is Mount Rushmore National Memorial, located near the town of Keystone. Surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills, majestic figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are carved in granite 5,725 feet tall. The Avenue of Flags leads you to the Grand View Terrace. Below that is the Lincoln Borglum Visitors Center where you can learn fascinating details about Mount Rushmore’s carving, which took place from 1927 to 1941. Gutzon Borglum selected these four presidents because of their significant contributions to the expansion, preservation and unification of the United States. There are also tools and models used during the carving, images of the workers and historical film footage on display. No photo can capture the magnitude and magnificence of Mount Rushmore. Kudos to the National Park Service for the improvements they have made to this memorial. The Evening Lighting Ceremony is held every night at dusk. It includes a ten minute ranger talk followed by the singing of the national anthem and the lighting of the sculpture. At the end of the ceremony all Veteran’s are invited down to the stage for the retiring of the colors. I was honored to join these men and women who have served our country. There was no way to hold back my tears!
When we planned this trip, I didn’t see how we could visit Devils Tower National Monument, since it was between the stops of Rapid City, South Dakota and Buffalo, Wyoming. Turns out it was closer to Rapid City than I thought, and having an extra day in our schedule gave me the chance to go! President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower as the country’s first national monument in 1906. It rises 1,267 feet above the picturesque Belle Fourche River Valley, a geological oddity of epic proportions. Also known as Bear Lodge, the tower is sacred to over two dozen Native American tribes. Many ceremonies are still held at the tower today, including sweat lodges, sun dances and prayer offerings. In fact, as I hiked the Red Beds Trail and Tower Trail around the base of the mountain I found many, many, prayer clothes tied to the trees by practitioners of Native American religions. The National Park Service asks hikers not to touch these as they are sacred and also asks climbers not to climb the mountain during the month of June, considered to be a particularly sacred time.
By the way, Rapid City/Black Hills KOA? It’s what we have come to expect. Crowded, small sites, with amenities, a pool and activities for the kids. Since we were here for ten days, we stepped up and purchased a Premium Patio Site. It’s located right next to the dump station! If the Belvidere KOA was known for pizza, this stop should be known for pancakes. They are large and fluffy and all you can eat for only $2.99. Our ratings: 6 out of 10.
On to Buffalo, Wyoming