Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Grand Tour of the Black Hills

(Black Hawk, SD) Hi 103  Lo 71 -- Happy 4th of July to all our readers! What better way to spend the anniversary of our independence than reflecting on our visit yesterday to the magnificent Mt. Rushmore, which depicts four of our very greatest presidents.

Yesterday was a very full and rewarding day. We knew we’d only be in this area for a few days, and we wanted to see as many sights as possible. So we signed up for an all-day tour through Mount Rushmore Tours. We bought the tour + meals package, which included a free cowboy pancake breakfast and an evening Chuckwagon Supper and Cowboy Music Show.

We arrived at the Ft. Hays, about six miles south of Rapid City, at 7:30am. It was the starting point of our tour, and the site also has some sets and memorabilia from the 1989 Kevin Costner movie Dances With Wolves. (Click on photos to make them bigger.)
DSC_7945 (640x426)

We checked in and was assigned to a bus departing at 9am, so we had 90 minutes to enjoy our all-you-can eat cowboy pancake breakfast and look around the place. The breakfast was nothing spectacular, but good and filling. Dee had some pancakes and I had bisquits and gravy with sausage links. With our stomachs full, we walked around to check out Ft. Hays. It’s a decent reproduction of an 1800’s era small town, with some of the buildings that were used in the Dances With Wolves movie. They moved some of the buildings over from the actual filming locations in the Black Hills.

DSC_7939 (640x426)

DSC_7936 (640x426)

DSC_7957 (640x426)

DSC_7967 (640x426)

We took the opportunity to have a little fun with a couple of props.
DSC_7949 (426x640)

DSC_7962 (640x426)

Finally our bus arrived and we loaded up to start the tour.
DSC_7972 (640x426)

Our first destination was Mt. Rushmore, which is officially listed as located in Keystone. We drove through Keystone, a typically touristy looking town, and a couple miles outside of town we got our first glimpse of the great masterpiece through the window of the bus.
DSC_7978 (640x426)

We wound our way up to the complex and the bus dropped us off right at the entrance. The first thing you see when entering is the Avenue of Flags. The flags of all 50 states are on display, along with plaques commemorating each state’s entry into the Union, with beautiful Mt. Rushmore as a backdrop.
DSC_7986 (640x426)

After you pass through the Avenue of Flags you come out onto the Grand View Terrace, where you get an unobstructed view of the sculpture.
DSC_8032 (640x426)

A native american was giving a talk and playing beautiful soft music.
DSC_8026 (640x426)

We couldn’t get enough of the beauty of the sculpture. Gutzon Borglum started construction in 1929, and he died in March 1941. His son Lincoln Borglum took over the construction. The intent was to depict the four presidents down to their waists, but lack of funding forced an end of the project in Oct 1941.
DSC_8001 (640x426)

DSC_7994 (640x426)

We found a nice couple who agreed to take a photo of us if we returned the favor for them.
DSC_7997 (426x640)

We had an hour to spend, which gave us enough time to watch a short movie and look over some of the exhibits in the Visitor Center and Museum. We sure could have stayed longer though.

But it was back on the bus to head up into the Black Hills on the Iron Mountain Highway, which winds its way up almost to the top of Harney Peak, which at 7,242 ft. is the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. To call the Iron Mountain Highway a winding road would be an understatement.
IMG_6449 (640x480)

IMG_6450 (640x480)

It not only has very sharp hairpins, but it also has what they call “pigtails.” They’re areas where the road turns completely around and over itself for a 270-degree direction change. It’s sort of like when you’re in town and you take three right hand turns to make a left turn. Kind of hard to explain, but several times when making these turns we looked down on the same section of road we were just on. Some of the curves are blind so caution is a must.
IMG_6421 (640x480)

IMG_6436 (640x480)

Our bus driver/tour guide said that these pigtails were a solution to the problem of not having enough room on the mountainside to have traditional switchbacks and hairpins.

Another feature of the road is the three tunnels. They’re barely large enough for the bus to pass through. But the ingenious thing about them is that they were designed to give a view of Mt. Rushmore when either entering or exiting. We were allowed to get off the bus to take a picture of this one. Click on it to enlarge it and you can wee the presidents’ faces through the tunnel.
DSC_8037 (640x426)

For this one I had to grab a picture down the center aisle of the bus.
DSC_8042 (640x426)

This was the third tunnel. I didn’t have an opportunity to get a picture of Mt. Rushmore through it because it was behind us as we went through.
DSC_8068 (640x426)

But here’s what it was like to pass through it. Notice how close the tunnel wall is to the side of the bus.
DSC_8071 (640x426)

On the way up the highway we got a wonderful long-distance view of Mt. Rushmore. This was taken through the bus window.
DSC_8052 (640x426)

We didn’t see a whole lot of wildlife, but we did see this Pronghorn Anetlope…
DSC_8058 (640x426)

…and this sleepy Buffalo.
DSC_8061 (640x426)

At the highest point of the highway, just below the top of Harney Peak, we pulled off to the side of the road to get out and view the beautiful Cathedral Spires, a geological marvel.
DSC_8074 (640x426)

Here’s a closer view.
DSC_8075 (640x426)

Here’s some views of other geological formations we passed by in that area.
DSC_8086 (640x426)

DSC_8084 (640x426)

IMG_6482 (640x480)

IMG_6504 (640x480)

IMG_6514 (640x480)

This isn’t the greatest quality photo as I took it out the bus window across the aisle, but it gives you an idea of the beauty of the distant hills.
DSC_8090 (640x426)

We made our way to Custer State Park. The park is 71,000 acres, and is the biggest state park in the lower 48 states. We stopped at the State Game Lodge for lunch. The State Game Lodge was the Summer White House for Pres. Calvin Coolidge. We had a good lunch buffet (which wasn’t included in the tour price). I left my camera on the bus so didn’t get a photo, but here’s one from the internet. It’s a beautiful building!

After lunch we were treated to more curves, drop offs, and switchbacks as we traveled the Needles Highway through Custer State Park. And another tunnel. This one was the narrowest of the trip. But what made this one entertaining was the crowd of people watching us just outside the exit.
 DSC_8099 (640x426)

They all had some surprising looks on their faces as they couldn’t believe that big bus was coming through that small tunnel! They all gave us applause as we drove by them. Very funny!

We made a stop at Sylvan Lake, the “Crown Jewel” of Custer State Park.
DSC_8101 (640x426)

It’s very pretty with the surrounding rock formations.
DSC_8114 (640x426)

DSC_8113 (640x426)

Part of the 2007 Nicholas Cage movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets was filmed there.

Our last major stop of the day was the Crazy Horse Mountain and Memorial. The memorial is still under construction and when finished will depict Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. It was commissioned by Lakota elder Henry Standing Bear to be sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski. It’s been in progress since 1948 as a completely private-funded venture. They get all their funding from private contributions, and admission fees and souvenir sales at the Visitor Center. Korczak died in 1982 and left the project to his wife Ruth and seven of their 10 children. The face of Crazy Horse has been completed. Here you can see his head and face, and the long flat area that will be his arm pointing in the distance.

DSC_8132 (640x426)

This is how it looks from the main viewing area.
DSC_8130 (640x426)

And here is a small-scale version of the final sculpture, showing how it will look when completed.
DSC_8139 (640x426)

We didn’t have time to take the tour up to the base, so here’s a close-up of his face, courtesy of the internet.

Of the places we visited on the tour, this is the one we’d like to go back to someday. An hour just wasn’t enough time to take in everything in the Visitors Center. They have a wonderful Museum of the American Indian that would take at least a couple of hours to fully appreciate.

By now it was late in the afternoon and we were getting close to completing our tour, which made a complete loop around Harney Peak. But before returning to Ft. Hays for our chuckwagon dinner, we drove through the town of Custer. It’s a pretty town, consisting of the usual shops and casinos, but one interesting thing they have around town is artwork consisting of painted buffalos.

IMG_6509 (640x480)

IMG_6510 (640x480)

We got back to Ft. Hays around 5:45. There was a long line already formed for the Chuckwagon Dinner and Music Show, which was scheduled for 6:30. The dinner was typical chuckwagon fare of barbequed beef (or chicken breast), baked potato, baked beans, apple sauce, bisquit, and spice cake, all on a tin plate and eaten on indoor picnic tables.

IMG_6556 (640x480)

IMG_6559 (640x480)

When dinner was over the music show started. “The Wranglers”, a six-piece band, played and sang everything from old-time country, a little 70’s rock and roll, and believe it or not even a Glen Miller tune (In the Mood).

IMG_6560 (640x480)

Elvis even made an appearance.
IMG_6570 (480x640)

Whew, what a day! The tour + dinner package cost $74.00 apiece, which is a lot of money for us. But we feel it was worth it because of how comprehensive it was. We got to see just about all of the highlights of the Black Hills area in one day. And if we had more time here we’d probably go back and re-visit some of them.

That brings us to today, which was a little less busy. Before we got here we knew that our good friends Rick and Gail have been in this area for awhile. Dee and Gail made arrangements for us to meet today for lunch at Culver's in Rapid City. We had a wonderful time talking and laughing and catching up on our travels, and before we knew it 3 1/2 hours had passed by.

Thanks Rick and Gail, it was great to see you guys again.

After a grocery stop at Walmart we returned home to relax and catch up on some recorded TV shows this evening.


Phyllis said...

HI there! See you are in Black Hawk. What campground??? We were at Three Flags for a week.

We left Black Hawk this morning and we about 20 miles away in Hermosa which is south of Rapid City. How long are you in the area?

our email

Gin and Syl said...

Sometimes it's nice to let someone else do the driving so you can see the area better. Great to spend some time with Gail and Rick.

Rod and Loyce Ivers said...

Don't leave without doing the Wild Life Loop in Custer State Park! But take some carrots for the mooching Burros down on the South edge of the main loop...... Be careful, they'll stick their heads right into your car to get what ever you got..... Takes some folks by surprise......

KarenInTheWoods and Steveio said...

Wheeheee what a whirlwind tour of a day!!!! I think I would need to sleep for the next three to make up for it.

What lovely sites and thanks for posting all the pics, we had seen and done that too and it will forever be etched in my mind!

Karen and Steve
(Our Blog) RVing: Small House... BIG Backyard

Jim and Sandie said...

I think the tour was a great way to see a whole lot in a short period of time. We've always had plenty of time for wandering when we were there. Your pictures brought back some great memories.

Gail Houle said...

Great post!

We had a great time visiting with you both today. Was a nice way to while away an afternoon :) See you next time!

Safe travels!

Jill said...

My husband and I are planning a trip to this area next year for our 35th anniversary. Your pictures and commentary make me even more anxious to get there. Thanks!

Mike and Terri said...

What a great couple of days! Sounds like the bus tour was the right choice for you. Glad to see that you were able to get together with Rick and Gail... and get Culver's worked into the day too! Fun Times!!!

Gypsy said...

I agree with those in favor of the bus tour. You can be sure to see all the major sites on such a tour, plus the scenery is just too beautiful to have to keep your eye on the road. Great post.

Laurie and George said...

What a great area. We plan on spending a lot more time there. Got to go there a couple of years ago with my parents, and absolutely loved it!

Sam&Donna Weibel said...

Don't forget to check out the Black Hills Central Steam train ride in Hill City. When we were out there it didn't run the day we went there. They might have a brochure at your campground. Glad to see you guys are getting to see all the sights, we loved our trip up there. Be safe out there, Sam & Donna..