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.
Few places encapsulate the mystic of the American West like DEADWOOD, a Gold Rush town with a spectacular setting and a pantheon of iconic former residents such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Yet the truth is that Deadwood was only briefly the wild town of legend (the Gold Rush was over by 1877), and by the 1880s it was a prosperous trade and supply centre. Only in the 1920s was it consciously developed into a parody of the “Wild West”, but by the 1980s Deadwood was virtually bankrupt; it was only the legalization of gaming and casinos in 1989 that saved it. Though its handsome buildings are now wonderfully preserved (most of the Wild West tack is long gone and the whole town is a National Historic Landmark), and elegant houses line the slopes, casinos now dominate business here, making it something of a year-round resort – adjust your expectations accordingly and Deadwood can still be lots of fun.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
One of America’s best-known monuments, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is unarguably the linchpin of the Black Hills’ tourist circuit. It’s a beautiful fifty-mile drive south of Deadwood, though by far the most impressive approach is to follow Iron Mountain Road (US-16A) from Custer State Park. This gorgeous route runs seventeen miles up via three curly twists in the road called “pigtail bridges”, each an engineering and design triumph.
The memorial was created by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who chose the faces and heads of four certifiably great American presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and his idol, Theodore Roosevelt.
Sixty years old when the project began in 1927, sculptor Borglum died shortly prior to the dedication of the last head – Roosevelt’s – in 1941. An incredible engineering feat, each head is about 60ft from chin to crown – by way of comparison, the Statue of Liberty’s head is just 17ft. The best times to view Rushmore are at dawn or dusk, when there are fewer people and better natural lighting.