It’s been a spectacular week for the campshaws. Who knew that western South Dakota could be such a fantastic place to camp? It surely was off our radar.
We rolled through Mount Rushmore on a nearly perfect fall afternoon. Bright blue skies, fluttering yellow cottonwoods, and nearly zero traffic. I remember doing the Family Vacation drive-thru in this area when I was about 10 years old. We were probably here for about twenty minutes before jumping back into the station wagon and moving on. This time, John and I had the time and the interest to explore. First up was a Ranger talk at the Sculptor’s studio, where we viewed a 1:12 scale model, and learned a bit of the process to create the Monument.Briefly, it took 14 years, with about 40 men at a time (over 400 total) working to finish the job. Note that the model has a much larger view than the finished Monument. By the time the heads were completed, it was October 1941, and WWII was looming. Additional funding from Congress was needed to proceed, and it was determined that the best course of action was to declare the sculpture complete.
At the Visitor Center, the film and exhibits of the creation of Mount Rushmore are well worth whatever time you have to spend. It’s an amazing project. One amazing fact we learned was the the sculptor Borglum alone decided on the heads to be featured – the original project was planned to feature heroes of the West, but he felt that broader appeal was necessary to get people to come to remote South Dakota to visit. Can you imagine a project funded with federal money today ceding control to one individual? The Ranger at the Sculptors studio assured us that, no matter what we read on the internet, this project is COMPLETE. No additional heads will ever be added. Sorry, Ronald Regan.We moved on from Mount Rushmore to Custer State Park, where we camped for two nights in one of the nicest State Parks we have ever visited. The heart of Custer SP is its bison herd, which numbers in the hundreds. A brand new Visitor Center opened this year (which rivals many of the National Park Visitor Venters). The video there is superlative – a huge curved screen, gigantic sound, and amazing video quality put you right in the middle of the annual bison round-up. It’s spectacular.
One day was spent cycling around the Wildlife Loop Road, where we waited out a large bull bison hanging out near the road. After watching videos of how quickly these 2000 pound animals can move, there was no way we were going to try to cycle past him. We did decide not to pass by this trio of inquisitive wild donkeys, accosting the car ahead. I call this photo Jackass on Bicycle Ecounters Three Donkeys and Car. Honestly, the next day, when we were driving out, we got in a donkey jam. Everyone was out of their cars, feeding apples to the adorable crew. One woman was carrying her yappy dog, and standing outside where the donkeys were nipping at her. That’s crazy. They are pretty big. I prefer to look at them from the inside of the truck.The famous Needles Highway was our route out of Custer State Park. Famous for its twisty path through the black granite “needles” of the Black Hills, it features two of the narrowest tunnels I ever hope to pass through. The Eye of the Needle was a mere 8’4″ wide. The second tunnel is a spacious 8’10” wide.
It’s a gorgeous drive, with several scenic turnoffs. Naturally, we stopped at them all. Small wonder that it takes us all day to drive 200 miles.National Forest Campgrounds are overall our favorite places to camp. We found a beauty at Sheridan Lake, in the Black Hills National Forest. It’s a huge campground, but just one loop of 25 sites or so was open. An enormous site overlooking the lake was ours. Except for the wind rustling through the pines, there was little sound. We hiked, and John found time to use his new fishing pole for the first time (with the purchase of a $16 one-day license). No fish tacos for dinner though – he failed to even get a nibble on the delicious-looking lure at the end of the line. If you’re going this way, I would highly recommend this rustic campground – it’s a gem.
Our primary reason for choosing this campground near Hill City was that we wanted to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sculptor Korczak Zielkowski had received a letter from Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, asking him to come to the Black Hills and carve a mountain, stating “my fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, also.” Work began on the gigantic Crazy Horse Memorial in 1948, and continues to this day. It’s hard to describe the scale of this project.
The four heads of Mt. Rushmore would fit neatly into Crazy Horse’s flowing hair. Will it ever get completed? Hard to say. With no federal or state monies, the project is funded by donations only. Currently, just fourteen men are working on the mountain. The plans call for Crazy Horse’s hair and arm/hand to be completed in the next 15 years. Visit and contribute if you can – it’s an inspiring project, continued since the death of Korczak in 1982, by his wife and 5 of his ten children. The Visitor Center, with its 1:34 scale model and American Indian Museum is well worth a few hours of time. I hope to be around in 20 years to come back and check on the progress. As we left, the mountain was lit by a spectacular sunset.Ever heard of Wind Cave National Park? Me, neither, although it’s the 7th National Park signed into existence by Teddy Roosevelt. Famous for the unique “boxwork” on the ceiling, it’s one of the largest caves in the world – featuring over 125 miles of cave in just a square mile. Interestingly, there are caves on at least three different levels, unconnected from top to bottom. We visited the VC, watched the movie, but elected not to go on a tour. It was late, the last tour of the day was about to start, and we were anxious to get to the campground and strike camp for the night. This crazy little campground had just a few sites, and our fee was just $4.50. It was like camping in a wind tunnel – man did it blow! But, we were treated to the bugleing of elk in the early morning hours (although we didn’t see them), and an amazing sunrise. Maybe we’ll revisit some day and actually tour the cave as well.
We’ve moved on to the Badlands, but that’s a story of its own. This post has dragged on long enough! We’ve covered very few miles in a week, but there is so much to explore in this corner of South Dakota. We are pointed toward Michigan, and begin our trek eastward in earnest today.