Great America Road Trip Days 28-29: The Beautiful Black Hills

Hail thundered on our roof as a series of bright flashes lit up the night sky. Daniel and I sat in the front of the Rialta as we watched the storm through the windshield. It was our first major thunderstorm since starting on our road trip and we were thrilled. We don’t have thunderstorms like this in the Pacific Northwest.

The Storm

The thunder started about 30 minutes ago while we were lounging in the dinette seats. Daniel and I were camped for the night and had already put our windshield covers in place. The best view of the lightening, however, was from the driver’s and passenger’s seats. So we crawled into the front and removed the window covers to enjoy the show.

And what a show it was! We couldn’t see the individual lightening bolts. Rather, we saw a series of blinding flashes that lit up the gloomy night sky. The rumble of distant thunder was a constant accompaniment as we watched together in awe. Occasionally a loud peal of thunder boomed overheard, but for the most part the storm seemed fairly distant.

It seemed like a fitting finale for our visit to the dramatically beautiful Black Hills.

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Driving through the Black Hills towards Mt. Rushmore

The Beautiful Black Hills

I hadn’t really known what to expect when we came to the Black Hills. I’d never seen Mount Rushmore before and it has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. Plus, Wind Cave National Park is located nearby. While it is true that I’ve never actually heard of it, I am on a quest to visit every National Park.

So we decided to stay here for a couple of nights to check out the area. Two nights turned into three when we ran out of time to see everything. The Black Hills surprised me at every turn with their rugged beauty and the diversity of things to see and do.

We would have stayed even longer, in fact, but the area was getting increasingly overrun with motorcycles. The annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is next week and the whole region is already gearing up for it. We wanted to be far away from here when that happens.

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Rugged beauty of the Black Hills

Wind Cave National Park

Our first stop in the Black Hills was Wind Cave National Park. One of the nation’s oldest National Parks, Wind Cave is home to one of the longest caves in the world. The cave has an extensive network of calcite formations called boxwork which are supposed to be pretty spectacular.

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Welcome to Wind Cave National Park!
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An opening to Wind Cave. The cave is a sacred site to the Lakota People in their oral creation story.
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Mixed grass prairie

Sadly, we weren’t able able to visit the cave as the elevator has been out of service for over a year. And even if the elevator was operational, we still wouldn’t have visited. It’s hard to maintain social distancing in a cave.

So we contented ourselves with an exploration of the park’s scenery above ground. Wind Cave boasts the largest natural mixed-grass prairie in the United States and is home to bison, mule deer and prairie dogs. Lots and lots of prairie dogs. In fact, we saw all three of these animals during our short drive through the park. But mostly prairie dogs.

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What’s up, prairie dogs?
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These guys decided to make their homes right next to the parking lot. It was very convenient for picture-taking.
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Hey there, little dude!
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Prairie dog close-up. Photo courtesy of Daniel and his telephoto lens.
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Mule deer. Photo by Daniel.

Crazy Horse Monument

After visiting Wind Cave, we drove north to see the Crazy Horse Monument. This partially-finished structure is a massive sculpture of the revered Lakota leader. Crazy Horse, of course, was made famous as one of the leaders in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

The Crazy Horse Memorial has been in construction since 1948 and will eventually be the second-tallest statue in the world.  Right now only the face of the sculpture is finished.

The sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, envisioned the monument as a metaphoric tribute to the spirit of Crazy Horse who reportedly said, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.” This is why Crazy Horse will be pointing with his arm outstretched to the Black Hills when the monument is completed.

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Crazy Horse Monument. The final dimensions are planned to be 641 feet long by 563 feet tall.
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The road leading up to the monument. Buses take visitors to the base of the monument for a closer look but we skipped this part of the tour.
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Scale model of what the sculpture will look like when completed. You can see the partially finished monument in the background.

Mt. Rushmore

After visiting Crazy Horse, we continued north towards Mt. Rushmore. I planned for our visit to take place in the evening in the hopes of avoiding the crowds. We arrived at 6:30 pm on a Sunday evening and had no such luck. The place was packed with people and there was really no room to spread out.

Maybe if we arrived later in the evening it would have been more manageable. During our visit, however, it was not possible to maintain a reasonable social distance. We debated leaving, but in the end, decided to continue with our visit as planned. We put on masks, dashed in, snapped a few photos, and dashed back out a few minutes later.

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Mount Rushmore! Now I can cross this off my bucket list.
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The flags of all 50 states line the pathway approaching Mount Rushmore
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Obligatory Mount Rushmore selfie

Daniel and I had a better experience viewing Mt. Rushmore as we drove away. We stopped in a scenic pullout along Highway 244 and found a great view of the monument in profile. True, we could only see Washington’s face, but that was fine by me. We also had a lovely view of the Black Hills from here which I’d rather see anyway. And there were no other people.

Perfect.

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Washington in profile
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Your Rialta photo for the day

Now I had some space to reflect on Mt. Rushmore and its complicated history. I recently became aware of the controversy surrounding the Black Hills when President Trump visited the area over the Fourth of July weekend. As reported in this ABC News article, Mt. Rushmore is “a reminder to Native Americans of the countless treaties broken by the U.S. Government”.

The Black Hills were promised to the Sioux tribe in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.  The Black Hills area has been considered sacred to the Lakota and other native peoples for thousands of years. However, when Custer discovered gold in the region, everything changed. The tribes were pressured into selling the land in a transaction that was later deemed illegal by the United States Supreme Court.

So I have mixed feelings about being here. This is why I prefer to view Mount Rushmore National Monument away from the crowds. Here, the monument is separated from patriotic pomp and flag-waving. It is easier to view the sculpture in context of the natural beauty of the Black Hills. And I have space to consider this piece of our nation’s history as well as its complicated past.

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The beautiful Black Hills. Mount Rushmore in profile is visible in the upper right-hand corner.

Where are we now?

We are at Mt. Rushmore! You can see Washington’s head in profile just above Daniel.

Dates: August 2-3
Great American Road Trip Status: Days 28 & 29

Location: Big Pine Campground, SD
Miles Traveled: 90.7
Total Trip Mileage: 2942.2

For more details on our Great America (Socially Distanced) Road Trip, see my previous posts:

 

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