Into the Hills: Can’t Miss Spots for Your Black Hills Tour

With tourism being South Dakota’s second-largest industry, you can bet there is a lot of sightseeing to do here. The Black Hills, especially, is packed with picturesque, travel hot spots.

We remain optimistic about this year’s RV travel season despite its rough start due to the COVID-19 outbreak. We’re cautiously hoping that as this starts to pass, there’ll be enough cabin-fever to make people want to pack up the RV and head out on a road trip.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the travel season starts up once again which places in the Black Hills are worth a visit or even a revisit?

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No sightseeing tour of the Black Hills is complete without Mount Rushmore. The monument is recommended by nearly everyone, and for good reason. Completed in 1941, Mount Rushmore is a cornerstone in South Dakota tourism. Towering at 5,725 feet with each head being the size of a six-story building, this goliath of a monument is truly a sight to behold.

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to visit this memorial before noon. Mount Rushmore was carved with the intent of viewing it in the morning. Facing the eastern sun the light hits the mountain perfectly in the morning hours.

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Viewing the Shrine of Democracy is only one of the many things you can do while visiting Mount Rushmore. Take your time and hike multiple trails available on the property and visit the sculptor’s studio and museum where you can learn all about the monument.

Iron Mountain Road

Iron Mountain Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While you are going to Mount Rushmore, be sure to take the scenic Iron Mountain Road on the way there. This winding road is full of magnificent Black Hills scenery, pigtail bridges, and gorgeous tunnels that perfectly frame Mount Rushmore as you approach the monument. Constructed in 1933 and designed to do the scenery justice, it’s suggested that you take this road at no more than 20 mph to really take in everything the Black Hills has to offer.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A can’t miss destination on your list should be Custer State Park. The 71,000 acres of the Black Hills offers a home to lots of including a chance to see the famous South Dakotan bison, just be sure to remain in your vehicle or stay back at least 100 yards from them!

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park has a little bit of adventure for everyone, from camping and hiking to fishing and swimming, there isn’t a more picturesque place to visit for a good time.

Needles Highway

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Completed in 1922, this National Scenic Byway was deemed impossible to construct. The roadway was planned out by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck who marked the entire course on foot and horseback. This extreme highway offers 14 miles of sharp turns, narrow tunnels, and granite spires that are sure to leave you in awe.

Crazy Horse Memorial

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Often clumped together with Mount Rushmore, this memorial deserves a place all its own. Sculpted to resemble Tasunke Witco (Crazy Horse) of the Oglala Lakota, this monument is the largest in-progress mountain carving in the world. Much more than just a colossal mountain carving, the Crazy Horse Memorial is home to several museums dedicated to not only the development of the monument but also the diverse histories and cultures of the American Indian people. Additionally, the monument is host to multiple programs and fellowships meant to honor artists, performers, and culture bearers as well as University programs for the next generation of young native people.

Pronghorns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here’s the thing, visit South Dakota once and the place SELLS ITSELF. Much more than just the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, and the Badlands, SoDak is the most scenic places you knew nothing about. Until now!

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You don’t carve the faces of presidents into a mountain unless you’re doing something right.

Worth Pondering…

Great Faces, Great Places. Find your great place.

Round ‘Em Up: The Ground Rumbles & The Dust Flies

Feel the thunder and join the herd at the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Feel the earth tremble as the hooves of more than 1,300 American buffalo pound through the valley in Custer State Park. At the annual Buffalo Roundup in the Black Hills of South Dakota, herdsmen on horseback spur them over the ridge, down the hill and into corrals for sorting.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each fall, the ground rumbles and the dust flies as cowboys, cowgirls, and park crews drive the thundering herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo (number of animals vary depending on rangeland conditions). Up to 20 volunteer cowboys and cowgirls are selected each year through an application process.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clouds of dust and flying turf envelopes the 1-ton animals as they come running by, a mass of horns, hooves, and muscle on the move. You would think such large, lumbering animals would be slow, but they can stop on a dime and easily jump a 5- or 6-foot fence. Your jaw will drop at their speed and agility.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Riding herd on the stampede takes both organization and an understanding of bison intellect. The herd moves easily from prairie grasses to asphalt and into the holding pen. Over the years, there had been numerous runaways trying to turn back.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The big bull bison are not included in the Roundup because they are more aggressive and are simply hard to round up. Because of this, visitors may see them scattered throughout the park during the Roundup weekend.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, it is also part of the park’s management plan to maintain a healthy balance between the number of bison and the available rangeland forage. The park can only sustain a certain number of bison, based on the condition of the grassland and how much food is available.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Buffalo Roundup also allows for some of the animals to be sorted out of the herd. The excess animals are then auctioned off to buyers in November wanting to supplement their herds or start new ones elsewhere in the country.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual roundup, held the last Friday in September, is open to the public. In 2019, the 54th  annual Roundup is scheduled for Friday, September 27.

Wild burros also via for attention © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no admission fee for the event and a park entrance fee is not required the day of the Buffalo Roundup. Parking lots open at 6:15 a.m. (but be prepared to wait in line). Visitors who are in the park by 7:00 a.m. will have plenty of time to get to the viewing areas. The Roundup does not start until 9:30 a.m.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pancakes, sausages, and beverages are available at 6:15 a.m., in both viewing areas. Lunch is served, until 2:00 p.m., at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals.

Pronghorn antelope share the range with the buffal0 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both viewing areas have unique vantage points and visitors get great views from either location. Visitors may not move between viewing areas.

Wild burros also via for attention © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Roundup is generally over by 11:30 a.m., but visitors need to be prepared to stay in the viewing areas until the bison are safely in the corrals. Shuttles are available after the Roundup for visitors wishing to visit the corral area.

Fun activities continue the entire weekend following the Roundup. The Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival, with up to 150 vendors, is held Thursday, Friday, and Saturday near the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center. Saturday features the annual Cabela’s Challenge Dutch Oven Cook-off.

Pronghorn antelope share the range with the buffal0 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re not in the mood to browse or buy and you want to escape the crowds, there’s plenty of daytime wildlife viewing along Wildlife Loop Road and other scenic byways. September is the rut season for the elk and the pronghorn antelope. With the elks’ mating calls and sparring, along with the antelope racing after each other, wildlife watching is quite entertaining.

The spectacle of these animals moving across the plains is a thrill rarely seen elsewhere. So is the silence that shrouded the hills once the beasts are corralled.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once placed in the corrals, park staff sorts out approximately 200 animals to be sold, vaccinates the new members of the herd, brands the new calves, and checks the cows for pregnancy. It takes about four days to work the entire herd.

Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)

Explore the Black Hills

If you’re into camping, hiking, wildlife, or big adventure, the Black Hills is the place for you

The Black Hills of western South Dakota have long been a favorite of RVers. We came to this area to explore the natural side of the Black Hills—the plants and animals, geology, and natural history that existed before the trappers, miners, and homesteaders came—and we weren’t disappointed.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving an RV in the Black Hills is challenging. Most roads are curvy two laners with plenty of up-and-down elevation changes. Those driving larger rigs should plan routes carefully or better yet, locate yourself in a nearby campground or RV park and drive your toad. Also be aware of restrictions caused by tunnels on several roads.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving through the Black Hills takes you through some of the most rugged, distinctive, and beautiful land in America. It’s hard to stick to the main road in South Dakota’s rugged land of canyons, cliffs, and caves.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills are home to some of the most majestic scenery you can imagine, from the winding Spearfish Canyon to the mountain lakes that surround Rushmore—rivers, mountains, caves, and more make it ideal for hikers and climbers and everybody in between.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those in-betweeners include the bikers who throng the otherwise placid Sturgis every year, and gamblers who flock to Deadwood, a living museum of gold mining days. Small towns like Spearfish and Belle Fourche give you a chance for a little culture.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills is basically a gigantic, serene cluster of small towns amid enough crazy geographical features to populate an entire planet, all scattered within an hour or two of one another. Not bad for a place most often associated with having a gigantic wall of presidential heads looking over it.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills are home to the giant stone faces of Mount Rushmore National Monument and the Crazy Horse Memorial. This is the land of Deadwood and the final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and hundreds of American Indians killed at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. It’s also steeped in a rich gold-mining history.

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting in the northwest, State Route 14A takes you through gorgeous Spearfish Canyon, a deep, narrow gorge carved by Spearfish Creek. The canyon has its own ecosystem of lush waterfalls, giant limestone cliffs, dozens of caves and, in the fall, a beautiful palette of colors.

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several scenic drives wind through the area, thanks to the efforts of Peter Norbeck, a conservationist who was South Dakota’s governor and a U.S. senator many decades ago. He helped establish Custer State Park and oversaw a tremendous undertaking in road construction. Norbeck explored the park on foot and on horseback, savoring the beauty of the Black Hills. His first road was completed in 1922 and named Needles Highway, for the spiky granite formations that stud the horizon.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway boasts more than 600 rock-climbing routes up granite spires that rise up out of the limestone. Harney Peak, the highest point east of the Rockies at 7,242 feet above sea level, stands in the distance. A leisurely hike to the top takes about two hours one way and is well worth the time.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iron Mountain Road was Norbeck’s next road project, connecting the park with Mount Rushmore to the north. The drive takes visitors along a series of pigtail bridges, so named for a corkscrew configuration that allows for sudden changes in elevation without disturbing the natural landscape. The road is designed to make you slow down and enjoy the scenery.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the world’s largest known caves, Wind Cave National Parks has many unusual formations and a variety of minerals are found in the cave. The cave is best known for its outstanding display of boxwork, an unusual cave formation composed of thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northwest of Wind Cave, the even larger Jewel Cave National Monument ranks as the second longest cave in the U. S. and the third longest in the world, with 173 miles of explored passageways. Jewel Cave is distinctive for its sparkling crystals, and particularly for a long ribbon of crystal called cave bacon that hangs from the ceiling.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

This mountain, the arched back of the earth risen before us, it made me feel humble, like a beggar, just lucky to be here at all, even briefly.

—Bridget Asher

South Dakota: Fly Over State? Not a Chance!

South Dakota gets a bad rap as a flyover state

An often overlooked travel destination, South Dakota is a land of breathtaking scenic beauty.

Here’s the thing, visit South Dakota once and the place SELLS ITSELF. Much more than just the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and the Badlands, SoDak is the most scenic places you knew nothing about. Until now!

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lewis and Clark passed through, Crazy Horse fought for freedom, and an 1876 gold rush in the Lakota-owned Black Hills created a miner’s camp known as Deadwood that lured frontiers’ woman Calamity Jane and gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After a rather long, prairie-flat preamble in the east, western South Dakota abruptly changes into two beautiful but distinct landscapes, the striated, fossil-rich sedimentary buttes of the Badlands and the nearby mountains so thick in evergreens that the native Lakota called them paha sapa—hills that are black.

Ironically, the defining feature of Western South Dakota’s breathtaking nature is that it is indefinable. Exceptionally varied, yet incredibly geographically close, you’ll witness the diversity of the natural world while also experiencing how the landscape can change over time.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start in Badlands National Park which is truly a natural anomaly. This rather off-putting nickname was first coined by the Lakota people, who called it “mako sica” (“land bad’), due to its extremity of temperatures, mixed prairie, and the exposed rugged and eroded sedimentary rock.

Badlands Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Badlands Scenic Byway drops immediately beside the parks serrated sandstone spires, which are banded in layers of purple, red, and orange rock that indicate their age. It is these very characteristics, however, that make it an ideal location for captivating vistas and off-beat serene beauty.  

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A must-see road trip destination, Mount Rushmore is visited by 3 million people a year.

The construction in its entirety took over 400 workers more than 14 years to sculpt, and will forever remain a testament to American patriotism. There is something rather overwhelming about it, as if it is a giant projection of a proud past on the rugged landscape of the indelible natural land.

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another powerful and impressive monument in the works, yet open to visitation is the Crazy Horse Memorial, a depiction of the fascinating Oglala Lakota warrior. The privately-funded project began construction in 1948, yet is still quite far from completion. Once completed, however, the statue, carved out of Thunderhead Mountain, will be the world’s largest sculpture at 641 feet wide and 563 feet tall. Witness history in the making by adding this stop to your itinerary!

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakota is also about those quirky roadside attractions. A necessary pit stop is Wall Drug in the town of Wall (the gateway to The Badlands), an establishment that embraces its quirkiness and welcomes 15,000 to 20,000 tourists a day. A stop at Wall Drug may include a cup of five cent coffee, a buffalo sandwich in a restaurant that can seat 520 tourists at a time, homemade pumpkin praline fudge, and a traveler’s chapel.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here corniness is key and despite your best efforts, you will more than likely leave with a Wall Drug tee shirt. Don’t say, I didn’t warn you.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And to the east along I-90, the famous Corn Palace in Mitchell which as the name might imply is AN ENTIRE ARENA MADE OF CORN!

The corny Willie Nelson at the Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Life really is the journey and these words cannot reach higher truth than referring to South Dakota. Driving through Custer State Park, you will see nearly 1,300 buffalo roaming alongside burros, prairie dog, and pronghorn antelopes.

Needles Highway, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, if you ever want to feel confounded by Mother Nature’s capabilities, Needles Highway is the drive for you with fourteen miles of steep turns, stunning vistas, and granite spires.

Buffalo Roundup, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic highways make the journey just as spectacular as the destination. Fly over state? Not a chance!

Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)

American History Alive In Stone: Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Majestic figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota, tell the story of the birth, growth, development, and preservation of America

“If you build it, he will come.” That oft-quoted line from the film Field of Dreams has equal resonance as the motivating force behind the formation of America’s Shrine to Democracy—the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, this colossal monument was the brainchild of state historian Doane Robinson, who conceived of the mountain carving in 1924 as a way to draw people from all over America to his state.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mount Rushmore symbolizes the ideals of freedom, democracy, and the American dream in the four 60-foot granite faces. This mountain carving of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln draws over two million visitors a year (2,431,231 in 2016). It is both a spectacular site and a man-made wonder.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The first blast on the mountain occurred in 1927. Under the direction of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, 400 men and women worked through hot summers and cold winters to create the 60-foot faces, nearly 500 feet up the side of the mountain.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Over 90 percent of the mountain was carved using dynamite. The fine details of the faces were achieved, using jackhammers and hand chisels. Operators hung from the top of the mountain in bosun chairs held by steel cables. Despite the dangerous work, in the 14 years it took to carve the mountain, not a single person died. The memorial was officially declared complete on October 31, 1941.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is open year-round, seven days a week and is located 23 miles from Rapid City. The memorial offers a variety of activities so plan to spend at least four to five hours there. Visitors can leave and return to the memorial the same day for the evening lighting ceremony. Mount Rushmore also features a gift shop, information center, and an award-winning audio tour. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Begin at the information center where staff and displays will help you plan your visit to the memorial and the Black Hills region. From here, go up on the walkway toward the sculpture and other facilities. The Lincoln Borgham Visitor Center has exhibits on the carving of Mount Rushmore, a 14-minute film, “Mount Rushmore—The Shrine,” an information desk, restrooms, and a bookstore. The Sculpture’s Studio displays models and tools used in the carving process.

The Presidential Trail is a half-mile loop that provides various views of the iconic Mount Rushmore National Memorial that can’t be missed. This easy trail meanders through the pines and near the blasting rubble left from workers carved the mountain decades ago. Along the trail, each president is highlighted with history provided by plaques found along the way.

Follow the crowds, and you’ll end up at the Grand View Terrace, just beyond the Avenue of the Flags. True, the head-on views are spectacular and unobstructed. But you can do better. Walk the often-bypassed loop around the base of the mountain. Climbing up the steps though ponderosa pines, you can get a closer view of the faces at various twists and turns (and maybe catch a glimpse of a Rocky Mountain goat or a mule deer, too).

Just outside Mount Rushmore, the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway offers stunning views of the Presidential faces framed by the local landscape.

Heading southeast from the memorial, follow Highway 16A, a twisting route down Iron Mountain Road. You’ll find tunnels that were specifically carved to frame the faces, yet predate the monument itself. They knew the mountain was going to be carved, so they constructed the tunnels to show off the faces before they were ever there.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Keystone is the closest city in the Black Hills to Mount Rushmore, which is located only three miles away. Rich in gold mining history, the quaint town of Keystone was once a boomtown after the discovery of placer gold two miles east of its current location. Placer gold is still thought to exist in abundance but the great depth of the deposits makes it difficult and impractical to reach.

Worth Pondering…

The noble countenances emerge from Rushmore, as though the spirit of the mountain heard a human plan and itself became a human countenance.

—Frank Lloyd Wright