There is a lot to see in the highest mountains east of the Rockies
The Black Hills is a mountain range that rises out of the Great Plains and is separate from the Rocky Mountains farther west. Located in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming, the Black Hills climb in elevation to over 7,000 feet, which is taller than any mountain in the entire eastern United States. The Black Hills are absolutely beautiful and contain animals such as mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and pronghorn. A variety of roads crisscross the Black Hills, containing towns, natural attractions and man-made attractions.
There’s no question that the number one attraction in the Black Hills of South Dakota is Mount Rushmore. Averaging over 2,000,000 visitors the last several years (www.nps.gov), Mount Rushmore has paid tribute to great U.S. presidents since 1941.
But, it would be a shame to visit Mount Rushmore and miss so many other natural and manmade things to see in the Black Hills. From the sixth-largest known cave system in the world, to spectacular wildlife, unique towns, and another grand sculpture, you could spend an entire vacation exploring the Black Hills. This doesn’t even count Badlands National Park, which is just about an hour east of the Black Hills.
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park sits in the southeast corner of the Black Hills (about one hour south of Rapid City). The cave system is the sixth-longest known cave system in the world and is known for its boxwork, a unique cave wall feature. Wind Cave is named for the winds found at its entrance and it also contains the largest natural prairie grassland above it.
Wind Cave National Park is served by a year-round visitor center and is a national park that doesn’t charge an admission fee. However, you do have to pay a fee to tour the cave. If you visit, please note that the visitor center is located on Highway 385 – some GPS units incorrectly place the visitor center on Highway 87.
With the exception of a campground, there are no services in the park (including restaurants). Aside from visiting the cave, you can hike the park’s trails, camp in the backcountry (in a designated area only), and view wildlife, including bison, elk, pronghorn, and prairie dogs. It is worth noting that the Wind Cave bison herd (250-400 animals) is one of only a small number of known free-roaming, genetically pure bison herds in the United States.
Custer State Park
Custer State Park is a South Dakota state park located directly north of Wind Cave National Park and south of Mount Rushmore. Custer State Park is a large, preserved area of the Black Hills. Famous for its wildlife viewing, Wildlife Loop Rd. is a popular drive through the park.
While in the park, you can camp, hike, bike, swim, cross-country ski, fish, canoe, kayak, paddleboard, and more. The park is famous for its yearly buffalo roundup, where the park’s over 1,000 buffalo are rounded up and then a portion of them sold through auction to keep the park’s population at a manageable level. Also unique is the park’s “begging burros,” a population of donkeys that roam the park and beg visitors for free food!
Custer State Park is home to a variety of lodges, campsites, and restaurants. There is an admission fee to the park.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Located about 25 minutes west of Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial is another mountain sculpture and honors Crazy Horse, a leader of the Oglala Lakota tribe in the 1800s. Crazy Horse earned fame by leading Native Americans against Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Crazy Horse Memorial is a work in progress. It is not operated by the U.S. government, but rather by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. As such, it has an admission fee (with options per person or per carload), and admission is not covered by any U.S. National Parks passes.
In addition to viewing the memorial, there is a visitor center that tells the story of Crazy Horse and contains Native American art and artifacts. The visitor center has a restaurant, conference facilities, and gift shop.
Jewel Cave National Monument
Located about 45 minutes west of Mt. Rushmore, Jewel Cave National Monument is the third-longest mapped cave system in the world (Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave is first). Open year-round, visitors can take one of three tours in the cave, as well as hike on trails above ground.
Jewel Cave National Monument is served by a visitor center with restrooms but does not contain a restaurant. Two of the three cave tours originate from the visitor center area, while the third tour originates about a mile west (where there is a parking lot and restrooms).
Tours require a paid ticket. You can reserve tickets in advance or purchase them day-of. As of this book’s publishing, only one of the tours is free through various national parks and monuments passes.
Another notable feature of Jewel Cave National Monument is that almost 90% of its trees burned in a fire in 2000. What remains is the regrowth of the forest, a neat study in how a forest recovers from a fire.
Host of a wildly popular (and just plain wild) annual motorcycle rally, Sturgis is a small town on the edge of the Black Hills. People are drawn to various bars and restaurants, as well as the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame.
A successful (and commercial) preservation of a classic western gold rush town, Deadwood, South Dakota is the site of the death of Wild Bill Hickok. Today Deadwood hosts a variety of restaurants, casinos, shops, and hotels on its classic Main St. Deadwood is also the setting for the former HBO series of the same name.
More than just gambling and eating, Deadwood has become a resort destination with nice amenities. Deadwood hosts concerts and festivals throughout the year, gun fight reenactments along Main St., as well as tours of the town and surrounding areas.
While it is in the Black Hills, Deadwood is over an hour’s drive north of most of the parks and monuments. Regardless, many people make Deadwood their vacation hub because of the restaurants and entertainment, while making day trips out of Deadwood for the other Black Hills attractions.
Other Black Hills Attractions
While the Black Hills offers a wide variety of parks and monuments, there are also a variety of manmade attractions. You can ride a steam train, navigate a ropes course, ride a mountain rollercoaster, tour a mystery house, ride a zipline, visit animal exhibits, tour gold mines, and more. Furthermore, there are various hotels, lodges, cabins, ranches, and resorts throughout the Black Hills.
This information is provided by Short and Sweet Introductions. Visit www.shortandsweetintroductions.com/west for more information like this and to learn about more vacation destinations in the American west.