Out West

The Black Hills

This emerald oasis is an island in a vast sea of prairie.

In 1874, a legendary Civil War military man, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, led his Seventh Cavalry on an expedition into the uncharted Black Hills territory. Accompanying Custer were cartographers and photographers, each eager to record details of this mysterious, unknown region of the world.

They encountered creek-carved canyons, ponderosa pine forests and mountain meadows painted with wildflowers. When the expedition confirmed the presence of gold and Custer announced the discovery to the outside world, a wave of adventurers crossed a vast sea of prairie, each destined for one of the last remaining American frontiers.

And, so it is today.

The same stunning scenery and enchanted forests that captured Custer’s and his men’s imaginations still beckon visitors today with a call to the wild. Within this ancient mountain range, shaped by the ravages of wind and rain and the slow pursuit of time, are the spirits of long-ago Lakota warriors and brave cavalry scouts. They mingle with the woolly mammoths’ bones and those of gunfighters slow to the draw. Massive mountain memorials, carved from the fabled Black Hills’ pine-clad cliffs, honor those who shaped a nation and those who first inhabited this rich and storied land.

Photo by Sophia Simoes on Unsplash

Mammoths and Early Man

The Black Hills and Badlands were once home to decidedly different inhabitants than they are today. In 1974, a bulldozer operator preparing a new apartment-building site in Hot Springs, S.D., unearthed a giant tusk that once belonged to a massive woolly mammoth. Work stopped and archeological digging began in earnest. Today, 52 woolly and Columbian mammoths, as well as 35 other ancient species, have been discovered at The Mammoth Site, all victims of a slippery-sided sinkhole that once lured animals to their deaths.

The Last Frontier

Due to the federal government’s 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty with the great Sioux Nation, the Black Hills were among the last areas in America to be mapped. In fact, it wasn’t until Custer’s 1874 expedition that whites explored the Black Hills. Certainly, gold-seekers had found their ways into the hills prior to Custer, but most never returned – either succumbing to the elements or Lakota Sioux, legendary warriors who fiercely defended the “Paha Sapa,” (literally “Hills Black”). Custer’s confirmation of gold sent a wave of miners, muleskinners and madams across the vast prairie known as the Great Plains. By 1876, more than 10,000 people were in the Black Hills.

Mount Rushmore

Nowhere else in the world can visitors gaze at two mountain memorials – one finished and one in progress (see “Crazy Horse” below). The completed Mount Rushmore National Memorial, featuring the giant likenesses of four of America’s best-loved presidents, was sculpted from the ageless Black Hills granite from 1927 to 1941. Had they been carved from head to toe, each president would’ve stood 465 feet tall – able to wade the Potomac without getting his knees wet; having to kneel down to read by the light from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Mount Rushmore remains one of America’s most enduring icons.

Crazy Horse

More than a half-century after sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began carving the massive tribute to the legendary Lakota warrior known as Crazy Horse, Ziolkowski’s widow and seven of their 10 children carry on the work. Chief Henry Standing Bear asked Ziolkowski to create Crazy Horse Memorial because the Sioux “would like the white man to know that the red man has heroes, too.” When completed, the colossal 563-foot statue will rank as the largest work of art in the world and will depict Crazy Horse pointing over the head of his stallion to the sacred Black Hills. Mount Rushmore would fit in the horse’s head.

An Underground Wilderness

Deep within the Black Hills’ bowels is an underground wilderness filled with hundreds of miles of darkened passageways, unusual features and rare specimens, some found no where else in the world. Tiny crystal Christmas trees, heliocite balloons that’d pop with the touch of a finger, gypsum beard that waves like strands of hair with the slightest breeze, and calcite rafts floating on the still waters of a deep, underground lake are among the rarest cave specimens on earth. Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park rank as the fourth- and sixth-longest caves in the world, respectively. But air volume studies conducted by the federal government, which use sophisticated computer models to determine miles of passageway, indicate that mapped passageways constitute less than 5 percent of what actually exists in these two caves. Explore!

Where Legends Live

It’s said that in South Dakota a visitor can scan 100 miles to the horizon and retrace 100 years in a day. With each footfall, travelers retrace the steps of a thousand faceless Native American warriors, cavalry scouts, gunfighters, range-riders and pioneer homesteaders looking for a new lease on life. The fruits of their labors remain in countless ghost towns, historic sites and community celebrations that mark the past and welcome the future.

Outdoor Recreation

With 18 peaks exceeding 7,000 feet and 1.5 million acres of pine-clad cliffs and clear-running streams, the Black Hills offer a veritable recreation wonderland roughly the size of Delaware. The 109-mile Mickelson Trail traverses the hills from the historic mining town of Deadwood to the buffalo herds of Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. Along the way, hikers and mountain bikers discover lofty trestles, free-roaming wildlife and mountain meadows painted with wildflowers.

Winter Wonderland

When Spearfish Canyon’s fall foliage transitions to winter, the Black Hills become an altogether different type recreational wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts. With more than 330 miles of groomed trails, thousands of miles of untended backcountry trails, affordable accommodations, rentals, and reliable snow conditions, the Black Hills consistently rank among America’s top snowmobiling destinations. Cross-country skiers discover a million-acre preserve, and downhill skiers and snowboarders find ample powder and high-speed lifts at two exceptional ski areas – Deer Mountain and Terry Peak.

Bison & Scenic Backcountry

Down the road less traveled, in the 73,000-acre Custer State Park, visitors explore scenic backcountry watered by crisp, clear trout streams and inhabited by elk, antelope, deer, mountain goat, Big Horn sheep, mountain lion, wild turkey, prairie dog and the largest free-roaming bison herd in the world. With its finger-like granite spires and panoramic views, Custer State Park also is home to some of the most scenic drives in the country.

Badlands National Park

Flanking the Black Hills’ eastern slopes, Badlands National Park is a 244,000-acre moonscape that the Lakota labeled “mako sica” or “land bad” a couple of centuries before white men first gazed upon it. When Custer first encountered the Badlands, he described them as “hell with the fires burned out.” With ragged ridges, chiseled spires and deep canyons ravaged by eons of wind and rain, this might be the most unusual terrain in the world.

Devils Tower National Monument

Located in extreme northeastern Wyoming on the Black Hills’ northwestern edge, Devils Tower was designated America’s first national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. The natural phenomenon is actually an ancient volcano’s core, now exposed by millions of years of erosion. American Indian legends tell of a giant bear that chased some young maidens up a rock, leaving its claw marks in the ancient stone tower. Today, the tower is a favorite among experienced rock climbers.

American Indian Culture

For centuries, western South Dakota has been home to succeeding tribes of American Indians. Their stories are still recalled in the sounds of stampeding buffalo, the steady beat of an American Indian drum, and the pageantry of a summer powwow. Threads of Dakota, Lakota and Nakota culture are woven through South Dakota’s history like a great tapestry that warms this nation’s rich and storied past. It’s a timeless spirit still carried in the hearts of the state’s 62,000 American Indians.

Mining Heritage

Long before tourists flocked to the Black Hills, mining was the chief source of financial independence, fueling western South Dakota’s economy. The granddaddy of all mines in the western hemisphere was The Homestake Gold Mine at Lead. In 125 years of operation, 40 million ounces of gold valued at more than $1 billion was taken from the Homestake, making it one of the richest digs on earth. Its shafts extended 1 1/2 miles below the earth’s surface, where the rock’s temperature exceeded 135 degrees. Although a faltering world gold market closed production in 2002, the Homestake is now being considered for site of America’s new Underground Science Laboratory, where scientists can conduct studies away from the affects of cosmic radiation.

For more information on visiting the Black Hills, contact the Black Hills, Badlands & Lakes Association at 888-945-7676; www.blackhillsbadlands.com.

Leave a Comment