The Black Hills of South Dakota

We left Lusk, Wyoming fairly early on May 29 headed for the Black Hills of South Dakota.  We had originally planned to go to Custer, South Dakota, but the owner of the campground where we stayed in Lusk suggested two campgrounds in Hill City saying that she thought we would like this community a little more.  I will just say that Custer is much more touristy than the RV Park we chose just north of Hill City.  We are in a quiet and comfortable location, close enough to all the sights to make for comfortable day trips, yet far enough from the tourist buzz to be able to hear ourselves think
There are a few technical issues with our current accommodations, but we have seen much worse.  The campground is built on a hill and the sites have a noticeable starboard list.  It took a couple of attempts to get level as the right side was so low that I reached the limit of my levelers without attaining a level coach.  So, I had to put four inch risers under the leveling jacks and try again.  We eventually got level, so all is well so long as we remember that the last step going out the door is a big one.  The hillside location has also presented us with a waste water dumping challenge.  The water has to flow up hill to get to the sewer connection.  That works okay during the initial part of a dump as the on-board tanks are higher than the final destination.  Momentum helps during the middle part of the evolution, but in the end I have to lift the hose at the coach end and walk the water towards the hole.  Complicating this issue is a lack of a positive connection point to the sewer line.  Therefore, dumping is a two person operation.  Again, this is nothing new, just a complication to be considered.  I am hoping I won’t have to dump the black tank before we leave as that process has far more dire risks associated.  The young couple who own this place bought it last spring.  So, they are undoubtedly trying to figure out how to make a living at this short seasoned business.  Technically, they have not yet opened for the season.  In fact we haven’t seen either of them since the day we checked in.  My sense is that they are probably both working other jobs to make ends meet as they get this place in the shape they want and turn it into a profitable business.  We wish them the very best of luck as they do in fact have a lovely location that we have thoroughly enjoyed.
Our view out the front of the motorhome is of a vast field ending with a beautiful house at the foot of a pine covered hill.  We have been entertained by Mountain Bluebirds, goldfinches, Robins, kingbirds and swallows all of whom seem to use the fields as their personal feeding grounds.  I did a little practicing with my new lens and got some reasonably good shots of a few of the birds.  I have included a few images in the web album that accompanies this article.
Hill City is positioned in the Black Hills just a short distance from MT. Rushmore, Custer State Park, Badlands National Park, Rapid City (Starbucks and shopping), Lead, SD, Deadwood, SD, Spearfish, SD, Wind Cave National Park and much more.  We will have visited all of these places before we leave here on Tuesday, June 4.
Since it was such a short drive from Lusk to Hill City, we were able to visit MT. Rushmore on our first day in the area.  We chose to do that because the weather forecast wasn’t favorable for good outdoor activities for the next few days.  We were pleased we made that decision.  While it was sort of a gray day, we had a great view of the mountain and we got some great photos.  Of course the visitor center provided a great deal of information on how the memorial came to be and the process of making such a monumental sculpture out of the face of a granite mountain.  We would eventually go back to Rushmore several nights later for the evening Ranger Talk.  There is a huge amphitheater at the base of the mountain.  At 9 PM every evening a Park Ranger gives a talk on the history of the monument and shows a video that includes some vintage footage from the sculpturing days.  It is quite a presentation.  At the end there is a flag lowering ceremony.  The Ranger calls for all the active and former military personnel in the audience to come down to the stage and participate in the ceremony.  After getting six volunteers from the group the flag is lowered while all the vets salute.  Then the Ranger comes along the lines of veterans and has each give his/her name and branch of service.  It is really quite a moving ceremony and it was particularly special for Connie and me to be able to share an acknowledgement of our service together.  It was a proud moment to be sure.
A little history of MT. Rushmore is in order.  It all started in 1923 when state historian Doane Robinson suggested carving giant statues in South Dakota’s Black Hills.  Robinson wanted his sculptures to stand at the gateway to the West, where the Black Hills rise from the plains as a prelude to the Rockies.  He envisioned transforming the Needles formation into a parade of Indian leaders and American explorers who shaped the frontier.  There was a great deal of resistance to the idea, but the memorial’s backers called in the master sculptor of Stone Mountain, Georgia, Gutzon Borglum.  Borglum was a patriotic American who made his name through the celebration of things American.
Borglum scouted out a location far better than the fragile Needles; 5725 foot Mount Rushmore, named in 1885 for New York lawyer Charles E. Rushmore.  Its broad wall of exposed granite faced southeast to receive direct sunlight for most of the day.  Borglum’s choice of subjects promised to elevate the memorial from a regional enterprise to a national cause “in commemoration of the foundation, preservation, and continental expansion of the United States.”  Borglum envisioned four U.S. presidents beside an entablature inscribed with a brief history of the country.  In a separate wall behind the figures, a Hall of Records would preserve national document and artifacts.
President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the memorial in 1927, commencing 14 years of work; only six years were spent on actual carving.  Money was the main problem.  Borglum would die before the last of the heads was completed.  World War II further delayed the completion of the project.  Finally, Borglum’s son Lincoln Borglum completed the project.  The final dedication would not be done for another 50 years when the Hall of Records was finally completed.
The four presidents were chosen for:  George Washington, commander of the Revolutionary army and first U.S. president; Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, third president, and mastermind of the Louisiana Purchase; Abraham Lincoln, whose leadership restored the Union and ended slavery on U.S. soil; Theodore Roosevelt, promoted construction of the Panama Canal and ignited progressive causes like conservation and economic reform.
Personally, I think Borglum got it right.  All these years and presidents later I don’t think another could be added without diminishing the principles of the four.  That is an unfortunate perception, but one I have given a good bit of thought to since being here.  These men were real leaders who put the country before their personal needs or gains.  I don’t think that can be said with any degree of honesty in the modern era.
For more information about the actual process of carving these giant faces on a solid granite mountain go to
On our first full day in the area we woke up to wind and rain.  We decided to drive to Rapid City and gauge the weather there before deciding what to do.  As it turned out the weather improved as me made the drive so we stopped at a Starbucks in Rapid City and then rolled on out to Wall, South Dakota and the famous Wall Drug.
Wall is a town of just over 800 inhabitants, a number that hasn’t changed much over the years.  Wall Drug was a real drug store and a young druggist by the name of Ted Hustead moved his young family to Wall where he bought the store and set out to make a living.  The Husteads knew it would be tough, but they promised to give it five years.  At first they lived in an apartment in the back of the store which was separated from the rest of the store by a blanket covering a doorway.  In the summer of their fifth year they were still not making a lot of headway, but nor were they starving.  By then they had a second child.  One hot summer afternoon Ted’s wife, Dorothy, turned to Ted and told him she wasn’t needed at the store as there were no customers, so she was going to put the baby down for a nap and take one herself.  Less than an hour later she returned saying she couldn’t sleep due to all the traffic passing by on US 14A.  She told Ted that maybe if they put out signs saying:  “Get a soda . . . Get a root beer . . . turn next corner . . . Just as near . . . To Highway 16 & 14. . . Free Ice Water. . . Wall Drug.”
Ted liked the idea and during the next week he and a local boy made the signs.  The following weekend they took the signs out to the road and put them up.  Before he could even get back to the store people had started to stop.  By the end of the day they were exhausted, but they had been successful at getting people to come off the road and into the store.
As they say, the rest is history.  Ted invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in roadside advertising all around the nation, in London on the buses and even in Kenya.  U.S. GIs perpetuated the process by putting up signs next to other signs saying Kilroy was here that gave the distance to Wall Drug.  As business improved, so did the footprint that Wall Drug occupied.  Now, it is nearly a mall featuring all sorts of tourist stuff as well as high end clothing and boots, a restaurant, an ice cream shop and more.  There is even a bit of a museum on the location that documents much of the establishment’s history.
For more information and a more complete discussion of the store’s history go to:   
We enjoyed walking through the store and avoided spending a fortune while there.
After lunch, not at Wall Drug, we continued our drive to Badlands National Park.  The South Dakota Badlands is one of those geologic marvels.  The area was once part of a very large sea that stretched from western Iowa to western Wyoming and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada.  Then as the Continental plates pushed and shoved and the Rocky Mountains began to emerge, the sea floor was pushed up and the water drained away.  Then over millions more years the climate changed from warm and humid to much more arid.  As the climate changed so did the vegetation from sub-tropical forest to savannah, then to the grassland much like the present landscape.  Wind and water has shaped and eroded the area revealing the varied formations that give the area its name.  
The ancient seabed is loaded with fossils of long extinct marine life as well as mammals that lived in the emerging rain forests.  Several rare species of wildlife live within the present day badlands.  For the casual observer Badlands National Park offers multicolored bands of rocks and soils that make up the landscape.  These colorful bands are indicators of fossil rich soils.
Our visit was on a blustery day that was not conducive to any long hikes or for that matter standing around admiring the scenery from the numerous overlooks.  We did get out of the car long enough to get a few good photos that help to illustrate how the area got its name.  I must say, though, our early June visit allowed us to see the Badlands at their best.  There was an abundance of green prairie grasses all over the place providing brilliant contrast to the eroded slopes of the rock formations.  They may be called the Badlands, but they have a beauty of their own.  For more information about Badlands National Park go to:
The next day presented us with the worst weather of our visit to the area.  So, what did we do?  We drove to Rapid City and went shopping, of course.
By Saturday we finally had good weather.  We took advantage of the beautiful blue skies by taking a drive through Custer State Park.  At 71,000 acres, Custer State Park is big by any standard.  It is also filled with some of the most beautiful views in all of South Dakota.  The park offers something for everyone, including: fishing, hunting, camping, lodges, dining, hiking, limited winter activities and drives along some very scenic highways.  
The fourteen mile Needles Highway drive is a must for anyone visiting who isn’t driving a 30 foot motorhome or larger as their sole means of transportation.  The roadway was planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback.  Construction was completed in 1922.  The road features many super tight switchbacks and several single lane tunnels with blind curves at either end making them a bit thrilling.  The name of the road is derived from the needle-like granite formations which seem to piece the horizon along the highway.  One of these formations is named Needle’s Eye because of an opening towards the top of the needle formed by wind, rain, freezing and thawing.  It is quite striking.  I have included a picture of the eye of the needle in the accompanying web album.
Another can’t miss drive is the eighteen mile Wildlife Loop Road.  Although we saw wildlife everywhere we turned in the park, the Wildlife Loop Road was pretty special as much for the fact that since it is not a throughway, the traffic is less dense.  That may change as the season gets wound up, but for our time in the park it made for a much more relaxing drive.  The wildlife is abundant for sure.  We saw bison, deer, pronghorns, prairie dogs and a variety of birds and waterfowl.
The other major drive is Iron Mountain Road which runs between Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the junction of US 16A and SD 36.  Most of this road is outside Custer State Park, but it is a road that has to be driven.  This road also features many tight switchbacks and also some of the most beautiful bridges I have ever seen.  The bridges are made of curved laminated wood complimenting the similar colored tree trunks of the area.  It is easier to be the passenger on this drive as the driver has to keep a large eye on the road in order to stay on it and therefore doesn’t get nearly so good a look at the beauty of the roadway as it blends with the environment.
Let me take a little break from the touring to talk a little about the dining opportunities in the area.  We found that most of the restaurants were built around the tourist trade and therefore offered local specialties such as trout, bison, elk and the like.  We also found that although most of the meals out we had were good, none were what you would call to die for.  There were a couple of establishments where the building was at least as big a draw as the food. 
One such place was The Ruby House in Keystone, just below Mount Rushmore.  This place has the look and feel of an early 20th century building with many antiques adorning the meandering dining room.  However, the current building is a rebuild of the second former building.  The original restaurant was a converted house and gas station and opened in 1970.  In June of 1972 the building was destroyed by a flood which ravaged the entire area including nearby Rapid City.  The owner was not to be beaten, though and he rebuilt and operated the new Ruby House for some time and then leased it to another family while he continued to manage the Red Garter Saloon.  On June 18th, 2003 the Ruby House would once again be destroyed, this time by a fire which took with it six other businesses in this small town.  The owners, leasers, employees and the community all pulled together and not only rebuilt the restaurant, but had it open for business on May 20th, 2004.  I had bison stew in a bread bowl that was really quite good.  Connie had a forgettable southwestern chicken salad, the only memorable portion of which was the guacamole.  Unfortunately, there was nothing worth dipping into the guacamole.
The other great building was the last place we dined, Desperado’s in Hill City.  This restaurant resides in one of the oldest buildings in South Dakota.  The building is a log building and survived a major fire that took down most of the town during the mining days.  The outside of the structure is covered in vertical planks to hide the burned exterior of the logs while the interior showcases those logs.  The furniture is all locally hand made from local woods, much of which is available as a result of the devastation caused by the Western Pine Beetle.  While killing the trees it infests, the pine beetle leaves behind a bluish hue to the grain of the wood adding to its beauty.  Unfortunately, this wood is not structurally sound and can only be used for furniture and paneling.  That said, the owner of the restaurant told us that it is hard to find beetle kill lumber, as it is called, due to its popularity.  This building is on the national register of historic buildings while the restaurant within is only in its ninth season.  The food was good, but not great.  Maybe we are getting too picky as we age!
Back to our travels in the area.  We took a drive north of our base camp of Hill City to the towns of Lead and Deadwood.  The drive itself was really beautiful as we wound through the forested hills.  Lead and Deadwood both have their beginnings as mining towns.  Lead was considered a mining camp while Deadwood has long had the distinction of being a town; a business hub for all the mining camps in the area if you will.  There were banks and businesses to support the surrounding camps and setting this town apart from the camps.  Deadwood also has the distinction of being the location where the Wild Bill Hickok was shot dead.  The modern Deadwood sports a Main Street that is a throwback to the early days with casinos and saloons lining either side of the street.  One long row of businesses has a second floor where a once upon a time bordello once apparently thrived.  Today there are mannequins dressed as 19th century prostitutes advertising their wares as it were.  There are a couple of cute signs to help attract one’s attention as well.  I have included a few pictures from Main Street in the web album.
Our last day in the area had us in another cave.  This time we visited Wind Cave National Park.  The cave here could not have been more different from the caverns in Carlsbad, New Mexico.  The difference in part comes from the difference in the way the caves were formed.  In New Mexico flowing water carrying carbonic acid slowly built the various formations that exist in the cave.  Here, the water didn’t flow.  The formations are the result of a lowering of the water table that did its work in a more stagnant environment.  The results are a completely different look than what we observed in Carlsbad.  
We took a ranger guided tour of a very small portion of the cave.  The cave has over 100 miles of known passages which crisscross an area of only a few square miles.  Our tour covered about a quarter mile of passages.  Although discovered in 1881 the cave has not yet been completely explored and mapped.  In 1890 eighteen year old Alvin McDonald began exploring the cave and leading visitors on tours of it.  Alvin used a string to keep track of his below ground travels so he could find his way back to the surface.  He also used a single candle lantern to light his way.  While we well within the cave the ranger lit a candle lantern and then turned out the lights.  It absolutely amazes me that anyone would continue to explore these dark depths with such limited lighting.  Not only can you easily lose your way, string or not, you can only barely see the formations that make the visit so fantastic.
As stated above Wind Cave has different types of formations than many other caves and caverns around the world.  One formation, Box Work, which is a signature formation for a cave where the formations come from a lowering of the water table as opposed to flowing water, is abundant in this cave.  Our ranger told us there is more Box Work in Wind Cave than in any other known cave in the world.  I have included some photos of the different formations found in the cave.  However, I am not as proud of these images as I was of those captured in Carlsbad.  The nature of the tour and the very limited lighting made it difficult to gain the quality of photos I desired.  Therefore, I really encourage the interested in going to and look at the photos the pros took.  While there you can learn more about the cave and the surface side of the park.
The surface side of Wind Cave National Park offers a look back to what the great prairies once looked like before agriculture and civilization took over.  This is another of our national treasures that provides us with a look back and a strong lesson in conservation of our natural resources.  Our driving tour above ground was a bit hurried and therefore there are no photos.  I am not too certain that simple still photographs would do this park justice.  It is truly a place to be seen in person or at least via moving video.  My internet connection isn’t good enough for me to view any of the videos available on the NPS website, but the titles lead me to believe that good views of the prairie should be available.
Let me end this post with one last dining story.  We got to Wind Cave National Park late in the morning.  After looking through the visitor center and talking with the ranger about the available tours we decided on a mid-afternoon tour so we could drive south to Hot Springs for lunch and not be too hurried.  The ranger didn’t offer any suggestions as to where to eat.  So, we drove along the main drag looking at the few restaurants, delis and bakeries and finally decided on a bakery where a good number of people were gathered.  Sometimes the number of people eating at a place isn’t necessarily a positive endorsement on the quality of the food.  That was certainly the case here.  The food was OK at the very best.  However, and the reason I am even discussing this, the clientele was worth the marginal meal.  There was an older gentlemen sitting by himself at a large round table who seemed to be getting the attention of the entire wait staff as they went passed.  He had a few choice comments for the employees as well as some of the other patrons.  Then there was a threesome who came in from the local golf course one of whom immediately started in yet another patron about his lousy golf game.  That got most everyone in the place involved to some degree.  The non-golf group fellow made some quip about whether or not the golfer had played 18 holes to achieve his score.  The golfer groaned.  I leaned over and told him he should have said “No, I played 27 holes.”  Of course he goofed that up by trying to imply that I was at the course and that he had in fact played 36 holes to achieve his score of 78 which of course is completely unbelievable.  Meanwhile, the poor waitress, who was on day one of her employment, was trying desperately to take the golfer’s order.  As our lunch progressed the conversation among the golfers turned to politics and got even more humorous.  So, even though the lunch provided only nutrition and not a bit of taste appeal, the atmosphere was as rich as it could be.
Devils Tower is next, so stay tuned.

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