I guess I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew that the Hills were considered one of the most sacred places on earth to the Sioux tribes. I also know that the Black Hills are an extremely popular place for tourists to do all sorts of tourist things, with “attractions’ rivaling almost anyplace in the US. I know that there are those who think of Rushmore as a beautiful, patriotic monument to our country and it’s history, and others who are appalled by the whole idea of carving faces into a wild mountain. I can see both sides, but either way, I liked seeing Mt Rushmore and I like the story of its creation and its creator.
But this morning as we drove west from the Heartland RV Campground into the southern end of the Black Hills, it was only minutes before the landscape began to reach down and touch something deep. The part that made this place sacred to the Sioux had absolutely nothing to do with sculptures or attractions. Mo and I kept commenting on how incredibly green it was, after the dry prairies. Green and yet somehow open. We were traversing Highway 36, east of Custer State Park entrance, and the valley was broad and dotted with homes here and there, and little roads that wandered off seductively.
We had an agenda, however, and with only two days to explore this part of the country, there wasn’t time to follow the seductive roads and go hunting for ghost towns of a bygone era. Roger and Nancy and their dog Jackson were following Mo and Abby and I as we explored. It was impossible to fit 4 adults and two dogs into either of our cars for the day trip we had planned, but we had our trusty little handheld CB’s to keep us communicating.
The magic of the Black Hills I think is largely a result of its amazing geology. Rising from the plains like a green island oasis, these hills are formed from some of the oldest rock on earth, a batholith of slowly cooling magma created granite filled with crystals of rose quartz and mica. Eons later the dome was surrounded by huge inland seas that eventually turned to fossil filled limestone and allowed the formation of some of the longest known caves on the planet. The Miocene Era brought tropical conditions that created red shales and sandstones at the edge of the island. Within Custer State Park is Mt Harney, at more than 7,000 feet the highest peak between the Rockies and the Alps!
There are several roads to Mt Rushmore, but we chose to drive the Iron Mountain Road first toward Keystone and then after passing the monument, we would continue the loop to Sylvan Lake and back down to Highway 36 and home. The biggest surprise was actually how small it all seemed. I guess sometimes as westerners we are used to the vastness of our mountain ranges and deserts, and this island of rock and green didn’t seem nearly as big as I expected it to be.
The forest is mostly Ponderosa Pine, with some of the cooler areas filled with Black Hills spruce. With pine beetle ravaging the forest, the park is actively managing to try to reduce the damage and danger in addition to creating good conditions for the restoration of the hardwood forests that are being encroached on by the pine. Much as juniper encroaches on grasslands in the west, the pines take over the hardwood forests when there isn’t any natural thinning process allowed. Our relationship with the natural fire cycles in the western forests in changing, but it is hard to let fires burn every 20 years or so when they would destroy all those houses that we now have in the middle of the forest.
The Iron Mountain road is only a few miles long, but it is winding and twisty, steep, and punctuated with tight, low tunnels and curved bridges. It was an exciting drive, made more so by the sound of thunderous motorcycles all along the way. The Black Hills are famous for lots of reasons, and the big Sturgis Motorcycle Rally held the first week in August is definitely one of them. Of course, even with the rally another week away, the area is filled with bikers from all over the country, and probably from other countries as well.
We did know that the actual Mt Rushmore monument area was a huge concession charging $11.00 to park (no senior park pass honored) and see the walk of flags, to read about the carving of the faces, to see it all up a bit more closely. None of us really cared to do all that, and decided early that we would bypass the visitor center in favor of the great views through the tunnels and from high vantage points along the highway. I must say that as we passed the bumper to bumper backed up traffic trying to enter the parking lot we were incredibly glad that we had made that decision!
This morning, we had started our day with a big leisurely camping breakfast, and somehow didn’t think to pack a picnic for the rest of the day. Yeah, I know…what were we thinking?? We decided to try to find groceries in Keystone, but that was funny, and after driving through the Disneyesque town from one end to the other, we were relegated to a gas station food stop, where they told us the nearest groceries were 11 miles away. Picnic fare turned out to be a couple of apples, some orange juice, and string cheese, which was just fine. Mo and I were tired of eating anyway…seriously….the last week has been filled with way too much food!
After we threaded our way past all the cars trying to get into the monument visitor center, we continued west toward Horsethief Lake, thinking we might stop there for a doggie swim or a walk. The traffic was a bit daunting, and from what we could see from the road, that little lake wasn’t very inviting. Instead, we decided to continue on to Sylvan Lake. I recently re-read Sherry’s blog about their visit to this area last fall and decided that Sylvan Lake would be worth taking the kayaks down from the top of the car.
Again, once we actually arrived, I was surprised at how small it was. The traffic was tight, the parking lots almost full, but we managed to find a spot close to the water, and after a bit of waiting we even found an open picnic table under a shady tree. The sun was brilliant, the skies were perfectly blue, and the crowds didn’t seem to be much of a problem either, once we settled in. Taking turns by pairs in the kayaks worked out perfectly, and the four of us with our two dogs spent the rest of a beautiful afternoon enjoying one of the prettier places we have seen lately..
There were lots of kids swimming and climbing on rocks and sunning and diving into the cool water. The lake is surrounded by vertical granite pinnacles, and it seemed that no matter where you looked, there would be a kid or two silhouetted against the sky high on a rounded dome.
As the afternoon wore on, we decided it was time to make our way home and we loaded up the kayaks, the dogs, turned on the radios and continued southeast along the Needles Highway. In no time, we were once again on an incredibly narrow road and were going through even more narrow tunnels until suddenly we were at something called “The Eye of the Needle” and cars were parked in all directions and jammed up waiting for a turn to get through the smallest tunnel of all. Mo and I saw several mirrors almost scrape the walls of the tunnel on some of the bigger vehicles coming through. That thing is tiny!! We were really glad we were in small cars and even then I worried about the kayaks.
The Needles part of Custer State Park is fascinating and gorgeous, and there are even some turnouts where you could enjoy the views, but with all the traffic we weren’t too inclined to stop. Farther down the road we saw a Dall sheep, and then a lone buffalo who refused to even raise his head while folks crawled by snapping his photo. I would love to come to this place sometime when it wasn’t quite so full of cars and people because it really IS beautiful. But that is the part that was expected, the traffic and the people and the hot weather. After all, it IS late July in one of the most popular places in the west and of course I knew what to expect.
What I didn’t know is how truly lovely the granite spires would be or just how breathtaking the views and how fresh that dry pine air would smell. We ended the drive with a visit to the visitor center built by the CCC, one more marvel of amazing workmanship and stately beauty. The CCC employed 29,000 workers just from South Dakota and contributed more than 6 million dollars to the local economy. I’ll not get political here, but every single one of us here in the US benefits from the beautiful work of the CCC.
By the time we got back to camp, the skies were looking stormy and the winds were coming up enough to make opening the doors to our rigs a bit challenging. Roger grilled chicken and Nancy and I made a big salad and we convened at their roomy table for four to enjoy our dinner protected from the crazy winds. No time to enjoy the swimming pool tonight.
Tomorrow we will be off to a different part of Custer State Park, and instead of a lake day, it will be somewhat of a town day as we explore Custer and some of those “attractions” that I mentioned earlier.
Our little day trip loop around the hills was a short and curvy 75 miles of fun. A is Hermosa, B is Keystone, and C is Sylvan Lake