The Black Hills area of western South Dakota holds many man-made and natural attractions that adds up to a very appealing place to visit and explore. To do so, we parked at the American Buffalo Resort just south of the city of Rapid City, SD.
The thing that most people know about this area is that this is where you can find Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Gutzon Borglum was the chief sculptor who dedicated 14 years of his life to creating this massive memorial to four men who had profound impact in the history of our country. Their vision and leadership very literally shaped how we came to be the most unique democracy in the world. In the words of Mr. Borglum, “A monument’s dimensions should be determined by the importance to civilization of the events commemorated.” Carving began in 1927 and was completed in 1941, just months after Borglum’s death. The cost was just shy of $1 million, almost double the original estimate. Nearly 3 million people from all over the world visit Mount Rushmore every year.
Just south of Mount Rushmore you will find Custer State Park. Inside the park you can drive the scenic “Needles Highway”. This 14 mile segment of South Dakota Highway 87 winds its way through interesting granite formations or “needles”. The road passes through two low and narrow tunnels blasted through sheer granite walls – Iron Creek Tunnel and Needles Eye Tunnel. On the east side of the park is the “Iron Mountain Road”, another scenic drive. As you pass through the Scovel Johnson Tunnel on this road, you will see Mount Rushmore framed within the tunnel opening.
East of the Black Hills you will find the Badlands National Park. It can be described as “peaks and valleys of delicately banded colors”. These bands represent some of the 87 distinct fossil soils that have been identified within Badlands. It came to be known as “bad lands” by the Lakota and early French trappers due to its forbidding nature – a land of extremes. It is a beautiful and intriguing place to explore.
If you are of a certain age, you will remember the “Cold War” between the United States and Russia which led to a massive buildup of nuclear weapons by both countries. The US developed the Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile which could launch a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead virtually instantly. On the north side of Badlands National Park, you can find the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site which tells the story of Minuteman Missiles, nuclear deterrence and the Cold War. At one point there were 1,000 of the missiles deployed in underground silos primarily in the western plains. South Dakota was home to 15 Launch Control facilities that commanded and controlled 150 missile silos. Nearby you can visit Delta-09, a missile silo that has been preserved as a unit of the National Park Service. Between 1963 and 1993, Delta-09 housed a Minuteman Missile weighing 65,000 pounds that could fly at 15,000 miles an hour to a target up to 7,500 miles away.
Back in the Black Hills you will find Wind Cave National Park, one of the oldest and most complex cave systems in the world. It was the 7th U.S. National Park and the first cave to be designated a national park anywhere in the world. The cave is notable for its display of the calcite formation known as “boxwork”, which is rarely found elsewhere. It is currently the 6th longest cave system in the world with 147 miles of passages mapped, all of which is confined to one square mile of surface area. We took the Fairgrounds Tour. Uniquely, in addition to the cave, above ground, Wind Cave National Park includes the largest natural mixed-grass prairie in the United States.
About 40 miles northwest of Wind Cave is Jewel Cave National Monument, currently the 3rd longest cave system in the word with some 192 miles of passages discovered so far. We took the “Lantern Tour” which explores a part of the cave that has no lighting. We carried kerosene lanterns which provided our light through passages which were at times low and narrow and required some “duck walking” and ladder climbing. It was a little different cave experience for us.
Next stop: Lusk, WY