The timbered, rocky BLACK HILLS rise like an island from a sea of grain-growing plains, stretching for a hundred miles between the Belle Fourche River in the north and the Cheyenne to the south. For generations of Sioux, their value was and still is immeasurable, a kind of spiritual safe place where warriors went to speak with Wakan Tanka (the Great Spirit) and await visions. Even though they’re mountains in the classic sense – the highest of the lot, Harney Peak, rises 7242ft – they were dubbed Paha Sapa, or Black Hills, as the blue spruce and Norway pine trees blanketing them seem black from a distance.
Assuming the Black Hills to be worthless, the United States government drew up a treaty in the mid-nineteenth century that gave these mountains (along with most of South Dakota’s land west of the Missouri River) to the Native Americans. However, once the Custer Expedition of 1874 confirmed rumours of gold in the hills, it wasn’t long before fortune-hunters came pouring in. Today much of the region is protected within the Black Hills National Forest, and is easily the biggest attraction on the Great Plains (though it’s really more part of the American West). South Dakota’s second largest settlement, Rapid City, is the region’s commercial centre, but apart from visiting family-oriented attractions such as nearby Reptile Gardens (reptilegardens.com) and Bear Country USA (bearcountryusa.com), there’s little reason to base yourself here. Indeed, though there’s plenty of kitsch fun in the form of theme parks, crazy golf and the like throughout the Black Hills there’s also plenty of history, and no place is much farther than a ninety-minute drive from the show-stoppers of Mount Rushmore and its ambitious work-in-progress counterpart, the Crazy Horse Memorial. Yet it’s the outdoor activities, rich wildlife and extraordinary scenery that make the Black Hills special, from the bison herds of Custer State Park to the magical caverns of Wind Cave National Park.