1YoT: South Dakota’s Black Hills

The Black Hills was another area Inna and I knew little about. We knew Mount Rushmore was here and that there were some caves, but that was it. The main reason we visited was because it broke up our long journey from Yellowstone to Chicago.

That being said, I can now say: the Black Hills are amazing! Between the festivals and scenery, the culture and artwork, there was a ton to do, all of it very enjoyable. One place we visited even provided the most humbling and inspiring experience I’ve had; it was one of our favorite stops on our entire trip. If you want to know what it was, keep reading!


The Black Hills is a small mountain range east of the Rockies, mostly in South Dakota but also in Wyoming. The area is sacred to Native Americans and was promised to the Lakota tribe in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Six years later, however, gold was discovered and miners and other western settlers swept into the area. Because of this, in 1889, the US government retook the Black Hills and moved the Lakotas to smaller reservations elsewhere in the state.

Also, notice the motorcycles in the above picture, just like at Devil’s Tower. They bring us to:


Every year since 1938, the small town of Sturgis (pop. ~7,000) hosts a motorcycle rally, a rally that draws 600,000+ bikes and 1,000,000+ visitors from all over the world. This year, the rally occurred the same week we were in the Black Hills. We didn’t plan it that way, we just got really lucky.


Seriously, 600,000+ motorcycles. Everywhere you go, it’s motorcycles motorcycles motorcycles. It’s incomprehensible until you visit, and even then, it was still incomprehensible.


Inspired by a TV show and a sign we saw in Red Lodge, after leaving Sturgis we swung by nearby Deadwood. Deadwood was the largest town that sprung up during the Black Hills Gold Rush and was famous for its lawlessness, including gambling, prostitution, opium use, and murder. Technically, just the act of settling here was illegal, since it violated the Fort Laramie Treaty. Today the entire city is designated as a National Historic Landmark.


This was the second historic wild-west site on our trip, and one of the few that still exist in Deadwood. Unfortunately, while much of wild-west folklore comes from Deadwood, almost all of the sites were lost in a fire in 1879.


And it’s raining again, three storms in the last three days. But I guess that’s better than one three-day storm; at least the mornings were clear.


Back on the road. I love the passenger in front of us.


Here is Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills’s most famous landmark. It’s a pretty cool monument and even though we didn’t see it up close, it was still a powerful piece.


Near Mount Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial, a Native American memorial initiated by Lakota elders who wanted “the white man to know that the red man has great heroes too.” Crazy Horse, a decorated Lakota warrior who, amongst many other battles, fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, was chosen because of his military bravery, his history of never participating in wars of aggression (he only fought to prevent encroachment on his tribe’s land), and his death: stabbed in the back by a US soldier while attempting to surrender on behalf of his tribe (his actual death was more complicated than that).


This Crazy Horse scale model was built by Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish sculptor who assisted on Mount Rushmore and designed and initiated work on the Crazy Horse Memorial. The sculpture depicts Crazy Horse with his arm outstretched, the pose representing his quote “my lands are where my dead lie buried.”


Crazy Horse has been under construction for more than 50 years and is not even close to being finished. When the Lakota elders hired Ziolkowski, they imagined a monument about as grand as Mount Rushmore. However, upon choosing a mountain (Ziolkowski wanted to carve one of the Tetons but the Lakota insisted the memorial be in their sacred Black Hills), Ziolkowski realized he could only achieve his goal (paying tribute to all that Native Americans have endured at the hands of the white man) by carving the entire mountain. When finished, the Crazy Horse Memorial will be more than nine times as large as Mount Rushmore and could be the largest sculpture in the world (several other under-construction sculptures are competing for this title).

I should mention here that I am discussing the Crazy Horse Memorial in such detail because I found it to be the most amazing and humbling individual undertaking I have ever seen. It’s not the project itself, which is controversial (many Lakotas don’t believe Crazy Horse would want his likeness sculpted since he never even allowed his picture to be taken, not to mention the fact that many also don’t believe the best way to treat a sacred mountain is to carve it up); it’s the scope of the project. That one man would dedicate his entire life to carving a mountain, that he would do so without initial funds or any public funding (the US government has offered but the sculptors repeatedly turn them down), and that he (or at least his kids, Ziolkowski died in 1982 but his wife and his kids continue on) would succeed, is incredible.

If all this weren’t enough, the memorial will also be accompanied by educational and cultural centers, of which a Native American/Crazy Horse Memorial museum and a University of South Dakota satellite campus have already been created.

Crazy Horse offers a nighttime laser light show, and that was the only part of the memorial we found lackluster. But when we left, we were treated to this. Lightning bolts left and right, like nothing we’d ever seen. And it continued for at least two hours, through the entire drive to our campsite and putting up our tent; it was still going when we went to bed that night.


From the largest sculpture in the world to a hole in the ground, this is the natural entrance to Wind Cave, the central feature of Wind Cave National Park. This small hole actually leads to the sixth largest cave system by volume in the world.


Wind Cave is unique in that it hosts almost no life. There is no water or moisture in the cave, which means no stalactites or stalagmites and no animals or other wildlife. Not only that, but the cave used to be submerged underwater, resulting in smooth and rounded rock surfaces and – very rarely – an undersea fossil.

This formation, known as boxwork, more than anything is what makes Wind Cave unique. Boxwork forms when earth solidifies between rocks, then the rocks fall out. 95% of the entire world’s boxwork is in Wind Cave National Park.


After Wind Cave we visited our last Black Hills destination, the area’s major metropolitan center: Rapid City.


Rapid City is home to Dinosaur Park, another New Deal Works Progress Administration project. The park is located on a hill overlooking the city, where the panorama above the dinosaur photo was taken.

Downtown Rapid City was very beautiful and reminded us of San Luis Obispo. Our favorite spot was Art Alley, a block-long graffiti/mural filled alley that cuts through the center of downtown.

Our other favorite part of downtown was its American president statues. Here are some (but not all) of my favorites, do you know who they are?

With that, we ended our visit to the Black Hills (not that we couldn’t have stayed longer: Jewel Cave, Mammoth Site, Black Elk Peak, there’s so much to do here!). So head on over to our next post, where we continue east.


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