Editor’s note: A familiar name to many RVers, Sue Bray has worked in the RV industry for 35+ years. Over the summer, Sue, her husband Mel, and their boxer Harley took off to tour the country in their 31’ fifth wheel, with no exact plans except to have an adventure. She’ll be chronicling their trip as well as sharing lessons learned along the way in this new ongoing blog series.
I knew I wanted to go to Mount Rushmore, one of our country’s most famous landmarks, when we started planning our trip. And it was everything I expected! But what I didn’t realize was just how beautiful the surrounding Black Hills were, and just how much there is to do there. I’m just glad we set aside enough time to be able to really explore and enjoy this fascinating area.
The Black Hills actually got their name from the Lakota Indian tribe, because they are covered in trees and from a distance do appear to be black. The Lakota people lived in this area, and in 1868 the U.S. government signed a treaty exempting the area from white settlement. However, shortly after this agreement, gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the Lakota were “reassigned” (against their wishes) to other South Dakota reservations.
Today, the Black Hills house the Black Hills National Forest and extend from western South Dakota to northeastern Wyoming. But there’s much more to them than I ever imagined. Here are my picks for things to do in the Black Hills.
We covered our visit to Mount Rushmore in a previous blog, so I won’t go into detail here. It’s just an amazing sight to be seen.
Korczak Ziolkowski started creating this memorial to a Lakota Indian chief in 1948, and it’s still only partly done. And that’s understandable – the statue will eventually be 641 feet long and 563 feet high. (In comparison, the presidents’ heads at Mount Rushmore are each 60 feet high.) Crazy Horse’s face was completed in 1998, and workers are now thinning the remaining part of the mountain to form his horse’s head. The Crazy Horse Welcome Center features the interesting Indian Museum of North America, which contains more than 12,000 contemporary and historic items, and the Mountain Museum wing depicts the work behind the scenes. The Memorial does not accept any federal or state funding, and is operating solely on admission fees and donations. Consequently, it’s pricey – $11 per person or $28 per carload with more than two people. For an additional $4 per person, you can take a 25 minute round trip bus ride to the base of the mountain. Native Americans and active military can visit for free.
By taking a little detour off the I-90 onto SD 240, in 38 miles drivers can truly experience South Dakota’s Badlands and its unique landscape. (Actually, our detour was somewhat longer, as our GPS sent us south almost into Nebraska, but that’s another story.) The Lakota gave the area its name, and today Badlands National Park consists of 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires blended with the largest protected mixed grass prairie in the United States. This land has been so ruthlessly ravaged by wind and water that it has become picturesque. It is desolation at its truest, where you can look for miles and see no sign of civilization. The Badlands are a wonderland of bizarre, colorful spires and pinnacles, massive buttes and deep gorges. There are numerous passes and overlooks, eight different trails, and a wonderful visitor center. There are pet restrictions on the trails, and America the Beautiful passes work at this park.
In 1910, the State of South Dakota established 50,000 acres of land as Custer State Forest and Game Sanctuary. Four years later, they released 36 head of buffalo in the park. Today, it’s a state park and that herd is more than 1300 strong, freely roaming throughout the park. In addition to the bison, we saw whitetail and mule deer, antelope, elk, and burros. (Unfortunately, we never saw a bighorn sheep – another bucket list item.) Most of the wildlife can been seen from your vehicle, which brings us to the other main attractions of Custer State Park: the unbelievable scenic drives on the Peter Norbeck and Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byways, coming up next. And as this is a state park, the America the Beautiful passes don’t work here. But a 7-day pass to all of the park’s attractions is only $15.
Norbeck was a South Dakota Governor, a Senator, and a dedicated conservationist. The Byway named after him covers lakes, towering granite formations, six tunnels, many many tight hairpin curves (do NOT bring your rig on this outing!), spiraling “pigtail” bridges, and wildlife ranges. The section dubbed the Needles Highway passes by straight stone spires, with tunnels so tight we needed to pull in the rear view mirrors on the truck in order to pass through. Some of the arches actually frame views of the Mount Rushmore faces! There are lots of picnic areas, climbing rocks, and streams to stop at throughout the drive – allow for a half day of exploring.
While not offering as many awesome views as the Peter Norbeck Byway, Spearfish Canyon holds its own wonders. Spearfish Creek lines the canyon floor while canyon waterfalls (particularly Bridal Veil and Roughlock Falls) make for popular roadside attractions. Hikers enjoy exploring the side canyons like Iron Creek or Eleventh Hour Gulch, aptly named because it only gets one hour of sunlight a day; and bicyclists love the wide shoulders and uniform 3% grade of the road. Spearfish Canyon was also the location for several scenes in the movie “Dances with Wolves.”
We visited this somewhat rugged small western town on a rainy day, so didn’t really take the time to explore its history and attractions. Originally, it had the reputation as a rather lawless town run by infamous gamblers and gunslingers with bars, brothels, and gaming halls. It was also home to such legendary characters like Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Seth Bullock. Not much has changed. Modern day gambling abounds behind the facades of the old gaming halls. There are lots of restaurants, spas, and hotels too.
8. Sturgis and the Motorcycle Phenomenon
Mel owns a motorcycle and so naturally a visit to Sturgis was on his list. We arrived there only days after their infamous motorcycle rally. The town seemed a bit tired – there were still lots of tents set up for the motorcycle crowds (estimated at nearly one million visitors) and lots of T-shirts at discounted prices. Probably more interesting (at least to me) was that so many of these bikers combined the Sturgis event with other tours of the surrounding areas. We met motorcyclists either on their way to or on the way back from Sturgis in Idaho, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and of course, South Dakota. It was fascinating to see the various bikes and accessories and to realize how many miles these bikers were covering.
If you’re planning your own visit to South Dakota and some of the fascinating attractions listed here, there are tons of beautiful private campgrounds in the Mount Rushmore area. In addition, there are 13 campgrounds right in Custer State Park – many of which offer electric hookups along with showers and restrooms, but not all can accommodate large rigs. For larger RVs, the park’s Blue Bell campground has 342 sites, some of which are 45’ long.
Until next time…
Related Blog: On the Road with Sue: Mount Rushmore