Of Men and Mountains – South Dakota’s Black Hills

South Dakota’s Black Hills Offer History and Artistry with an Authentic Old West Flavor.

With dynamite and determination, a sculptor with mountain-sized vision and a team of common laborers made history in the Black Hills.  Today, their shrine to democracy lives on in four granite faces that keep visitors streaming to Mount Rushmore.

The faces emerge slowly, ghostly features peering out among granite peaks. A nose, a chin, then a rocky jawline juts defiantly into view.

Suddenly, George Washington emerges in full profile — surprisingly out of place amid the wrinkled contours of surrounding mountaintops, and yet somehow, serenely at home.

Seen from the road, Mount Rushmore isn’t just a monument, but an ever-changing tableau. Every pull-off along approaching highways offers a slightly different view of the massive spectacle, giving new personality to the famous quartet — six-story tall faces that gaze solemnly back at visitors.

Mt. Rushmore flagsIn some ways, it’s a photographer’s dream. The subjects never move, but the fluid chemistry of clouds and sunlight seem to cast subtle new expressions upon the stony visages of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. To shutterbugs, it’s irresistible from any angle.

A few miles short of the entrance to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Information Center, Ed Hoffer pulled his motorhome off Highway 244 and lugged out his camera tripod.

The late-spring morning was cool, but sunny — a perfect window for the retired science teacher and photography buff to snap off a few frames.

“We’ve actually been trying for about five years to make it over here,” said Hoffer, who lives with his wife, Patricia, in Idaho. A cross-country trip to see a friend in Oklahoma convinced them to squeeze a detour to Mount Rushmore into their plans. “It’s the first time we’ve actually seen it in person,” Patricia Hoffer said, who couldn’t stop smiling at the view. “And well worth it. It’s absolutely amazing.”

First-time visitors can catch a glimpse of Mount Rushmore long before they reach the national memorial’s information center — you’ll find off-road turnouts filled with avid photographers and onlookers.

Even from afar, the carvings are breathtaking. But with easy parking, inexpensive admission, hiking paths, summer programs and excellent museum exhibits; a trek up to the monument shouldn’t be missed.

No one stumbles across Mount Rushmore by accident

Tucked deep within the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota, the national memorial requires a deliberate pilgrimage.

Visitors traveling on I-90 from the east or west should take the Highway 16 exit at Rapid City and continue to Keystone — located only a few miles from Mount Rushmore.

Highway 16 winds through downtown Rapid City past a grocery store- a good chance to stock up on provisions. To avoid downtown congestion altogether, try the Highway 16 truck route.

From Keystone, Highway 244 affords an easy two-mile drive to the memorial. The route isn’t terribly steep and offers numerous turnouts for viewing. But watch your driving, as the road is closely patrolled.

Visitors coming from the south should follow Highway 385 north to Highway 244, which leads to Mount Rushmore.

While there are no campgrounds at the memorial itself, the area is studded with RV parks; campgrounds can also be found in nearby Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park.

On a recent visit, Janne and Chuck Robertson, also from Idaho, stayed at Mystery Mountain Resort, located eight miles south of Rapid City on Highway 16. “As we were eating dinner last night, we realized a deer family was grazing right outside our window,” Janne said.

The Robertson’s had no problem driving their motorhome up to Mount Rushmore’s Visitor’s Center. Designated RV parking can be found by following easily marked signs.

“I think it’s awesome to see this,” Janne explained, gazing at the massive carvings from the comfort of the couple’s RV. “My husband has nerve damage in his leg, so we brought a mobility scooter. But the access is so good that he walked up there himself.”

Admission to the site is free, but entry requires a parking fee, a pass that is good for a full calendar year. Since the payment is not a federal entrance fee, National Park Passes, Golden Age, Access and Eagle Passports are not accepted.

Pets are only allowed in designated exercising areas — nearby grassy knolls that also attract grazing mountain goats.

Crazy Horse statueWhen Mount Rushmore was first proposed, critics denounced the sculpture as “an atrocity against South Dakota’s Black Hills.” A state historian originally suggested carving western icons, such as Buffalo Bill Cody, into the region’s granite spires as a way to attract tourists.

But sculptor Gutzon Borglum had a greater vision.

Instead, he chose four American presidents — who had shaped the nation — as symbols of freedom and democracy.

Employing a crew of 400 laborers, the sculpture was completed in 14 years at a cost of nearly a million dollars. About 90 percent of the carving was done solely with dynamite.

The information center offers an excellent overview of the project, complete with period film footage, a sculptor’s studio, museum, theater and bookstore.

Get out your camera to capture the Avenue of Flags, a pathway flanked by fluttering flags from all 50 states that leads to the Grand View Terrace, a fine place to sit, rest and study those massive faces.

Need to stretch your legs? The one-half mile Presidential Trail allows hiking around the base of the mountain for a close-up view.

For sheer drama, be sure to check out Mount Rushmore during daily lighting ceremonies, held at 9 p.m. May through August and 8 p.m. in September. The site is open year-round, except on Christmas Day.

Like to linger? Mount Rushmore has proven attractive to RVing couples that seek seasonal employment. Jobs at the memorial — gift shop and concession work — pay an entry-level wage, and workers can stay at discounted RV sites in Keystone.

“We call them work-campers,” explained Russ Jobman, general manager at Mount Rushmore. “They’re usually retired and most of them are living strictly in their trailers. They see it as an opportunity to come to an area and be able to see the entire area, to get into all the back country — things the average traveler doesn’t see.”

Work-campers also get a VIP pass, offering free or reduced rates at local attractions. “They earn enough money to pay their keep and their meals, their insurance on the trailer and get to be semiretired,” Jobman said. “It’s none of the responsibilities along with an active education.”

Big visions run deep in the Black Hills

A short drive from Mount Rushmore, visitors can observe a mountain carving at the Crazy Horse Memorial, which features a visitor center, Indian museum, restaurant, art gallery, gift shops and viewing veranda.

Conceived by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski at the invitation of Chief Standing Bear, the massive monument continues as a privately funded project. Completed, the image of Crazy Horse, the famed Lakota Sioux warrior who defeated Lt. Col. George A. Custer, measures 600-feet high. A nine-story-tall face is already visible.

Open year-round, the memorial is located off Highway 244 north of Custer. There is a per person or carload admission fee.

While you’re in the area, check out Custer State Park and adjacent Wind Cave National Park, home to one of the world’s largest herds of free-ranging American bison. Park camping sites do not offer hook- ups. For reservations, call (800) 710-CAMP.

Don't ForgetThe Black Hills offers a varied concentration of attractions, from museums, old mines and chuck wagon rides to spectacular caves, including Jewel Cave National Monument, Rushmore Cave, Stage Barn Crystal Cave, Black Hills Caverns and Wind Cave.

History comes alive in former mining camps, including Deadwood, Lead and Custer. Stroll Old West boardwalks, visit abandoned gold mines and take in staged gunfights.

You can even try your hand at gambling in Deadwood, but don’t gamble on finding a downtown parking place. Mini-buses that specialize in town tours are a better bet.

 

 

Independence Day

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