South Dakota's Black Hills: Places Worth Visiting
Custer State Park. Bordering Wind Cave National Park on the south Custer State Park is a big, beautiful state park with pine forests and the rugged land that typifies the granite Black Hills. The most popular part of the park is the Wildlife Loop Road where the visitor can see herds of grazing bison and antelope. The Custer Scenic Byway also follows Rte. 87 through Custer State Park passing Mt. Coolidge Fire Tower, the Needles Highway (see below), and eventually reaching Sylvan Lake. If you want a good interpretive explanation of the park, stop at the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center which explains the area’s flora, fauna, history, and geology. The Iron Mountain Road (Rte. 16A) is also worth a side trip and connects CusterState Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Harney Peak (Hinhan Kaga Paha). This is the highest mountain in the Black Hills and in South Dakota at 7,242 feet above sea level. Starting at the Sylvan Lake trailhead, it is an easy enough walk for those in moderate shape as the trail winds about 1200 vertical feet in six miles (round trip) to the granite lookout which has spectacular views. Harney Peak is the centerpiece of the Black Elk Wilderness in the Black Hills National Forest. The trail has great views, especially closer to the summit, as it winds through fragrant ponderosa and lodgepole pines and into aspen groves among granite boulders. It is truly worth the effort and a great way to experience the region underfoot rather than from a roadside pullout. Harney Peak's Lakota name is Hinhan Kaga Paha.
Jewel Cave National Monument. The calcite mineral prevails in this cave systems hence giving it its name because of the abundance of jewel-like crystals found on its walls. Jewel Cave National Monument was established in 1908 and with more than 60 miles of explored passageways is one of the world’s largest cave systems. In contrast to Wind Cave’s boxwork the formations in Jewel Cave are referred to as dogtooth spar because of their resemblance. There are also stalagtites and stalagmites and other formations called frostwork and the rarest is a paper-like wall with bubble-like appearance that is unique to the cave.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Featuring the giant sixty foot faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, this granite memorial is one of the most iconic man-made monuments in the United States along with the Statue of Liberty, The Gateway Arch, Golden Gate Bridge, and the WashingtonMonument. Blasted out of the granite side of Mount Rushmore in the 1930s, the figures were the work of Gutzon Borglun, a Danish-American, and his son Lincoln Borglun. Administered by the National Park Service since 1933, Mount Rushmore (elev. 5725’) was built in order to promote tourism to the region. The carving, or blasting, was ongoing from 1927 until its completion in 1941. Located near Keystone, South Dakota, the memorial was originally intended to have busts of the four presidents but a shortage of funding limited the carving to only the faces. The four presidents were deliberately chosen for their roles in expanding and preserving the country. A good place to view the presidential heads are from the Norbeck Memorial overlook (el. 5445’), three miles south of Mount Rushmore on Rte. 16A. Between the towns of Hill City and Custer off U.S. 385 is the emerging Crazy Horse Memorial which was begun in 1948 by Korczak Ziolkowski. When complete it will be the largest stone carving in the world.
The Needles Highway. A highway winds for 14 miles below these unbelievable granite spires which can best be viewed from the Needles Highway (Rte. 87). The Needles are in Custer State Park and there are good views from various lookouts such as Harney Peak, and Mt. Coolidge Fire Tower as well as roadside pullouts.
Spearfish Canyon. A road, the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway (U.S. 14A), winds through this rugged canyon which is highlighted by two beautiful waterfalls, Roughlock and Bridal Veil Falls. Popular with trout fishermen, SpearfishCanyon, is pleasantly forested and is located at the northern end of the Black Hills and easily accessible from I-90 south of the town of Spearfish.
Wind Cave National Park. The cave system is named for the noisy winds that occur when air currents rush to and from the cave’s entrance. Besides the wind the cave system is better known for its boxwork rock formations which were caused by the gradual erosion of uplifted limestone and calcite seepage in the cracks of rocks. The formations are among the best known in the world and you won’t see the signature stalagtites and stalagmites more typically of other dripstone limestone caverns here. Above ground no less beautiful and is the home to wildlife such as bison and prairie dogs that forage among scattered ponderosa meadows and beautiful prairies. Wind Cave has been a national park since 1903.
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