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Black Hills/Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

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Did You Know … ?

  • The Black Hills, at 60 million years, are America’s oldest mountains.
  • Sculptor Gutzon Borglum was 60 years old when he started the 14-year Mount Rushmore project.
  • General Custer (of Custer’s Last Stand) led the 1874 Army expedition that found gold in the Black Hills.
  • The presidents on Mount Rushmore would be 465 feet tall if their full bodies had been sculpted.
  • Every minute, 5,000 gallons of water gush from Evans Plunge, Hot Springs’ largest natural spring.

Where rock sculpture is big

The Black Hills region in the far west of South Dakota embraces the bulk of the 1.2-million-acre Black Hills National Forest, one of the world’s largest bison herds (an estimated 1,500), two of the world’s largest cave systems, 19th century gold mines including the world’s richest vein, ranches and Old West towns that once hosted legendary figures.

Nevertheless, one relatively small piece of Black Hills real estate, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, is the region’s top draw; nearly 3 million people from across the world arrive each year to see the faces of four U.S. presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, carved into the side of the mountain.

The attraction is big in a literal sense, too. The faces are 60 feet tall. The sculpture, carved between 1927 and 1941 at a cost of $1 million, is billed by some as the world’s greatest mountain carving. Whether that is true or not, it certainly has become an American icon.

There are those whose first reason to visit the Black Hills is something other than Mount Rushmore. In addition, plenty of those who make a beeline for the rock sculpture see the wisdom of staying on for more.

The landscape provides a treasure trove of opportunity for active travelers. The national forest alone has hundreds of river miles for fishing; 11 reservoirs offering boating, waterskiing and more, and 450-plus miles of trails suitable for activities that include biking, cross-country skiing, hiking, horseback riding and snowmobiling.

Scenic byways cross the Black Hills region, inside the forest and out. Custer State Park is noted for a high bison head count, but the park and the region offer other rewarding wildlife viewing choices, too. The huge Jewel and Wind cave systems provide exotic underground scenery to complement that above ground.

Finally, the Black Hills were part of America’s Old West (finding gold was a surefire way to enter that league). These days, visitors pan for gold, make bets in gaming houses, saddle up at the ranches — but they don’t have to duck if they see a guy with a six-shooter.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Cycle much or all of the George S. Mickelson Trail, which extends more then 100 miles through the Black Hills. The trail was created on a former railroad corridor.
  • In winter, try some of the Black Hills’s 325 miles of snowmobile trails. Or move through the woods on cross-country skis.
  • Look for art in an off-beat spot, on Art Alley in Rapid City. The block-long alley, once an eyesore covered in graffiti, was gentrified (to a degree) when amateur artists were invited, even challenged, to produce something better. Now the walls and doors of this back alley are something to seek out.
  • Bring camping gear and be on hand for the October roundup of American buffalo (i.e., bison) in Custer State Park in early October. The herd is about 1,500 strong; each autumn, some animals are selected for sale.
  • Take a break in a hot-air balloon and photograph the hills below you. Or, take a different break and swim at one of the reservoir lakes in the Black Hills National Forest.
  • Drive your bike and attend the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which occupies seven days in August.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Walk the half-mile Presidential Trail along the base of Mount Rushmore for great up close views of the presidents.
  • See something of the Wind Cave National Park. The cave system has more than 110 miles of mapped passages. Above ground, see bison, elk, prairie dogs and other wildlife. Or, head to the Jewel Cave National Monument, where the cave system — the world’s second largest — is even bigger, at more than 140 explored miles.
  • Participate in a trail ride, or spend your vacation on a guest ranch.
  • Drive one of the two national scenic byways found in the Black Hills. The shorter one focuses on the beautiful Spearfish Canyon, while the longer, at 70 miles, is the Peter Norbeck drive. Its oval-shaped route will take you through the most rugged terrain in the Black Hills.
  • Experience Native American culture, too. Come for the annual Black Hills Powwow and Art Market, in Rapid City in early October.
  • Take a half- or full-day hike in the Black Hills National Forest in autumn when the leaves are changing colors.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Stay in one of the lodges within Custer State Park and take a safari tour there. Resident wild critters include elk, mountain goats and pronghorn, as well as the large herd of bison.
  • Pause to really appreciate the 60-foot-high rock faces of four U.S. presidents on the side of Mount Rushmore. On the day of your visit to the four presidents, see another monumental sculpture in the making, the Crazy Horse Memorial 17 miles away.
  • Pan for gold at the Homestake Gold Mine, which had the world’s richest gold vein. You are guaranteed to find real gold. Several other sites offer gold panning opportunities, too.
  • Attend the Black Hills Passion Play in Spearfish, presented annually in the summer.
  • Gamble in Deadwood’s casinos. These days, there are more than 80 establishments to choose from.
  • See the bones of 55 mammoths at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs. Then, find out how the town got its name — take a dip in natural warm mineral waters in one of Hot Springs’ spas.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the South Dakota Department of Tourism at www.travelsouthdakota.com