The Black Hills of South Dakota

The Black Hills are a mountain range in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming that are covered in Ponderosa Pine trees, making them appear dark. Windy roads cross through the area, making the small towns and tourist destinations accessible. The southern Black Hills contain Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Custer State Park. The northern Black Hills include the cities of Deadwood and Sturgis. 

Both Jewel Cave and Wind Cave are only accessible by guided tour, so we arrived early two days in a row to get tickets.

Jewel Cave became a National Monument in 1908, but up until 1959 only about 2 miles of cave passages had been discovered. Now, it is the third longest cave in the world at 189 miles, but more passageways are still being discovered. Based on airflow analysis done at the cave’s only natural entrance, there could be thousands of miles still undiscovered. I thought (for about a minute) about volunteering for a cave exploration trip before I remembered that I’m not a big fan of tight spaces. 

We took the scenic tour, which starts with an elevator ride down, and continues with 723 stairs up and down on metal stairs and platforms covering about half a mile of the cave. It is 49 degrees in the cave, and humid. The air didn’t feel very cold (though I wore a sweatshirt), but the metal handrails felt cold and damp.

Jewel Cave is covered in calcite crystals, which is where it get its name. It is more colorful than many caves, but most of the crystals aren’t shiny, and give the cave a bumpy look.

The next day we toured Wind Cave. We took the Natural Entrance tour, which we expected would enter the cave through the natural entrance. Instead, the tour started by showing us the natural entrance, which is one of many sites in the Black Hills that are sacred to the Lakota Nation. We then entered through a man-made entrance nearby, which I was glad about, after I saw the size of the natural entrance!

Wind Cave has been a National Park since 1903 and was the first cave in the world to become a national park. It’s the sixth longest cave in the world (140 miles), but like Jewel Cave there is likely a lot more that hasn’t been discovered yet. 

There is a rare cave formation called boxwork, and 95% of all discovered boxwork is in Wind Cave. It gave the cave a gothic appearance, and made it feel like we were inside a hornet’s nest. 

It is 54 degrees in Wind Cave (a little warmer than Jewel Cave), but the postcards designed in 1935 say 47 degrees. That’s due to climate change, which has affected the central prairie region more than many other areas.

We visited both Jewel Cave and Wind Cave because I had read that they are so different and both great so it’s hard to choose one over the other. Even though they were different, we liked Wind Cave better. Jewel Cave was more colorful, but Wind Cave has more interesting cave formations. The area of Wind Cave we toured is less open, so we were closer to the formations and ducking under low ceilings. The walkway was cement rather than metal, and the experience just felt more cavey.

Wind Cave National Park also includes the area above the cave. There’s a scenic drive, and hiking trails, and many opportunities to see wildlife in the area where the ponderosa pine forest meets the prairie. We did a short hike on the Rankin Ridge trail that went up a hill to the highest point in the park, where there is a fire lookout tower. The view from the top was nice!

On the way back from Jewel Cave, we stopped at Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore. 

Brian had visited both when he was 10, and he was interested in seeing how much the Crazy Horse carving has changed, since it is still in progress. When he visited 23 years ago, the face was nearly finished, and there was a hole in the mountain where the arm would be. Now, the face is completely finished, and the mountain is a lot skinnier. But, there is still a lot of work to be done. If finished, it will be the largest sculpture in the world, at 641 feet wide and 563 feet high. 

The model of the sculpture is beautiful, and the amount of mountain that has been moved is impressive.

Part of the experience felt more like a memorial to the sculptor, rather than a memorial to an Oglala Lakota warrior. I have a hard time identifying with a guy that decided to make the world’s largest sculpture, began in 1948 basically by himself with a jackhammer, pounded away on a mountain for forty years, and then died leaving a massive project to his wife and 10 kids. I would’ve picked a much more practical project. 

The viewing area of the memorial (which is about a mile from the mountain carving) also includes a Native American museum that has some interesting artifacts and beautiful art. 

I hope the sculpture is finished during my lifetime so I can come back and see it. It’s been in progress now for nearly 70 years, but it does seem like they are gaining momentum. 

It was raining a little as we left Crazy Horse and drove to Mount Rushmore. At Mount Rushmore we found a large granite pavilion with a gift shop and cafe and two rows of flags displaying every state and territory’s flag. We walked through the avenue of flags and stood on the viewing platform, admiring the mountain carving.

It’s interesting to me how something can look just like it does in all the pictures, but it’s still really cool to see it in real life. After a few minutes we thought, “welp, that’s that”. But then we saw a sign pointing off to the right that said “sculptor’s studio”. We went there, and there were some models and a ranger giving a talk, and a gift shop. We bought postcards and looked for a patch, but the only patches for sale said Junior Ranger and Rushmore Ranger. Of course, we couldn’t buy the patch without earning the title. So, I requested a Rushmore Ranger workbook, and was directed to the visitor’s center to get one. What?! There’s a visitor’s center?! It is underneath the avenue of flags, and we had no idea. We almost missed it!

We went to the visitor’s center and learned about the creation of the monument and the carving process. It was created to be a tourist attraction to the area, since the gold rush boom had fizzled out and the region’s economy was struggling.  It took 14 years to carve. A few hundred workers hung off the mountain in swing chairs and blasted it with dynamite, and amazingly there were no serious injuries or deaths. After all that learning, we ate ice cream made with a recipe recorded by Thomas Jefferson, which was delicious.

The whole time we were walking around, Brian kept mentioning that it didn’t seem familiar. He thought Mount Rushmore was just a mountain carving and a parking lot. We asked about it, and a ranger said that the avenue of flags and visitor center complex is all new, and was started in 1994. So Brian was right, none of it was there when he last visited. 

Deadwood is a city that began illegally in the 1870s. The land belonged to the Lakota people, but when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, treaties were ignored and settlers invaded. It was the last gold rush, and because the town was illegally settled, it was lawless and full of gambling and brothels and wild-west characters like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

In more recent history, brothels were only shut down in the 1980s, and were replaced with legal gambling. We visited a casino and made a modest contribution. Brian played in a poker tournament and I visited the Adams Museum and the Mount Moriah cemetery. I probably should’ve gotten the hint, but was very surprised that Mount Moriah cemetery is at the top of a steep hill!   There was a long walking tour suggested through the large cemetery, but I skipped most of it and checked out Wild Bill and Calamity Jane’s graves, admired the view of the town from above, and then saw a few bighorn sheep that were resting in the cemetery. 

When Brian and his family visited this area, they were surprised by how many motorcycles were in the area, and learned that the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was happening. The same thing happened to us! There were bikes everywhere throughout the region. I thought we saw a lot in Deadwood, but it was nothing compared to what we saw when we walked down Main Street in Sturgis! I’ve never seen so many motorcycles. We didn’t fit in well, as the only people not wearing leather vests. 

We drove a lot throughout the Black Hills region of South Dakota, but the views were so nice we didn’t really mind.

Day 312| Mile 32,810


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