VISITING THE BLACK HILLS OF SOUTH DAKOTA
South Dakota's Black Hills and Badlands are some of the most beautiful and unique places in the country. The Black Hills, an oasis of Ponderosa pine-covered mountains in the middle of the Great Plains, are home to iconic landmarks like Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. And the Badlands, a vast and otherworldly landscape of buttes and canyons, is one of America's most surreal and breathtaking national parks.
Rapid City, the gateway to the Black Hills, is a great place to start your adventure. From Rapid City, you can drive up into Spearfish Canyon, one of the most scenic drives in America, or explore the many hiking trails and lakes of Custer State Park. The city also has a lively arts scene and plenty of great restaurants.
Badlands National Park is about an hour's drive from Rapid City and worth a visit. The park is home to some of the most unique geological formations in the world and an abundance of wildlife. Take the hike up to Notch Trail for incredible views of the landscape.
Whether you're looking for outdoor adventure or simply want to take in some of America's most stunning scenery, South Dakota's Black Hills and Badlands are sure to please.
The Black Hills of South Dakota
Roaring out of the Earth in the Great Plains of South Dakota is the magnificent Black Hills. Over 60 million years ago, the Black Hills rose high above the land through a significant uplift. Still, their creation began deep within mother earth. Their origin began in the Precambrian Period, some 2 billion years ago. At one point, it is estimated the Black Hills attained a height of 15,000 feet above sea level.
After millions of years of erosion, the highest point, Black Elk Peak, reaches 7,244 feet. Although half the original size, the Black Hills are still the highest point from east of the Rockies to the Swiss Alps. The Black Hills' oldest parts are granite, quartz, feldspar, and mica. Wandering through the area, you'll notice the ground glitters as if surrounded by jewels in every direction.
The Native Americans of this region call this range He Sapa, meaning Big Black Hills, or the center of all things. This was and is considered a sacred area by many, including the Lakota Tribe. The Lakota Nation is made up of seven bands or tribes. These are the Sicangu, Brule, Oglala, Itazipcho, Miniconjou and Sihasapa. The Black Hills is regarded as a part of their origin story, with the rights of ownership in dispute to this day.
This area's significant points of interest for visitors are the Cathedral Spires, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Iron Mountain Road, Needles Highway, Sylvan Lake, Crazy Horse Memorial, and, further to the East, Badlands National Park. In addition, this area is popular with nature enthusiasts, rock climbers, sightseeing, hiking, horseback riding, and much more.
The mountain range is 110 miles long and 60 miles wide, generally divided between the Northern and Southern Black Hills. In the Northern Black Hills, you'll find the majestic Spearfish Canyon, filled with hiking trails, waterfalls, the nearby Wild West City of Deadwood, and one of my favorites, Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary. In my experience, the Northern Black Hills plays second fiddle to the Southern Black Hills in tourism, but this shouldn't be the case. The Northern Black Hills are a place of beauty, healing, history, and recreation.
The Southern Black Hills are very special for many reasons. Generally, when people think of the Black Hills of South Dakota, they conjure up images of Mount Rushmore, with the faces of four U.S. Presidents, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. This is certainly quite an accomplishment and a feat of engineering.
The carving of the Presidents into the rock is also an example of domination, suppression of the Lakota Way, a desecration of a Holy Mountain (The Six Grandfathers), a booming tourism attraction, and a point of controversy. It's best to understand it through studies and formulate your thoughts.
In addition, there is the Lincoln Borglum Visitors Center with a short film and exhibition hall documenting the idea, construction, and impact the monument had on the area. Doane Robinson and Gutzon Borglum set out to create a memorial that would inspire the nation and, more importantly, bring much-needed tourism dollars to the region. They succeeded, and now over 2 million people visit Mount Rushmore yearly.
Native American Views
While Mount Rushmore stirs up pride and patriotism in many, the Native Americans of this area feel differently when gazing upon the monument. For them and others, it is viewed as a desecration of a sacred mountain. Mount Rushmore was named after an east coast attorney sent here to survey mining claims.
The exact story varies, but it is suggested that Rushmore was returning from prospecting to Harney Camp, and when he asked about the name of the mountain, locals either referred to it as Slaughterhouse Mountain or knew nothing of it. As a result, it was named after him - Charles E. Rushmore.
It should be noted that Charles Rushmore donated five-thousand dollars to the project in 1925, and the USGS recognized the mountain five years later as "Mount Rushmore." Money buys recognition. All one has to do is look at the shiny granite walls at the Grand Overlook to see who and how much they donated. The more considerable the amount, the higher you're name reaches.
Before this, the mountain was known to the Lakota as Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain. The Six Grandfathers are North, South, East, West, Above, and Below. This was where the Lakota came to pray, carry out ceremonies, and are considered the center of the universe. Protests, petitions altering the mountain, and disputes over the land continue into the foreseeable future. First, however, we should understand as much as possible and from both sides the history of this remarkable place. I encourage you to study and visit our Education Page.
Iron Mountain Road
If you make a trip to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, you can't miss the drive on Iron Mountain Road. Construction of this road was meant to complement the mountain, cause little disruption to nature, offer spectacular views, and provide a playground for automobiles.
Iron Mountain Road winds through forests and tunnels, which, when looked through, align perfectly with Mount Rushmore, offering great photo opportunities. The road covers 17 miles and has 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 pigtails, 3 tunnels, and two spits. It runs from Mount Rushmore and terminates near Custer State Park. Enjoy a Southern Black Hills Tour with a great guide to make the most of your visit.
The Central Black Hills
Although generally marketed as part of the Southern Black Hills, the Central Black Hills has some significant features. Among them are the Cathedral Spires. At the pinnacle of the Needles Highway, you'll find these.
As the cover photo shows, they take shape as giant granite fins and spires where the idea of Mount Rushmore was born. Here, a state historian, Doane Robinson got the idea of carving figures into the spires representing the west. Figures like Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Lewis and Clark, Chief Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody, and more were considered.
The Cathedral Spires weren't suitable for carving, so Mount Rushmore was sculpted where it is today. There are nearby places to eat in Hill City, the 1880 Train; a round trip train ride to Keystone and great shopping opportunities.
I love the Alpine Inn but remember, it's cash only. Mangiamo's is also a favorite and serves excellent Italian food. Hill City is an old mining town, just like all these places nestled in the valley between the hills. It's known as "The Heart of the Hills" because of its location. I've also read that it's been described as a church on either end and a mile of hell in between. While that's no longer true, it makes me laugh occasionally.
Crazy Horse Memorial is also located here and is well worth the visit. If you do go, keep in mind that all 4 Presidents on Mount Rushmore can fit inside the head of Crazy Horse and his flowing hair. It's huge. You can take the bus to the statue's base to get a gander. The central Black Hills fall into the Mystic District of the Black Hills National Forest. From Sylvan Lake, you can hike anywhere in the Black Hills; just be prepared. Hail can reach the size of grapefruit, no joke. I use a weather app called Accuweather, which I found here in the Hills; it seems the most accurate.
The Northern Black Hills
This area is becoming my favorite, and I can't put my finger on any one reason. As you make your way north, the Ponderosa Pine begins to give way to the Black Hills Spruce (A White Pine), Quaking Aspen, Paper Birch, and other species giving it more variety and texture.
When you say the "Northern Black Hills" to someone, they almost always reply with, "You mean Deadwood"? Deadwood is in the Northern Black Hills and overflows with Wild West stories, famous outlaws, legends, and Black Hills Gold.
The Northern Black Hills are much more. The town of Spearfish is one of my favorite places to go. This is where I'll take my guests for a picnic or indoor lunch. It has a quaint feel and a unique place called the D.C. Booth National Fish Hatchery and Archives.
Whether you're into fishing or not; it doesn't matter. For the enthusiast, it's got a lot. But, for someone who says fish smish, it's still pretty cool. Celebrating 125 years of operation in 2021, D.C. Booth hatchery has helped stock the many lakes, streams, and waterways of the Black Hills.
You can buy a bag of fish food, sit on a bench and toss it in the water as hundreds of trout come to the surface for that pellet. It's amusing and entertaining. The grounds are gorgeous and border Spearfish Creek, with a park for a picnic nearby.
The Northern Black Hills contain one of the most lovely places in all the hills, Spearfish Canyon. If you leave this off your list, you've made a big mistake. Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is one of the most beautiful drives in all of South Dakota.
Spearfish Canyon meanders southward along Spearfish Creek. Along the way, you'll see sparkling waters, wildlife, waterfalls, trailheads, and 1000-foot-high limestone cliffs created during the formation of the Black Hills. Spearfish Canyon is an extraordinary place. Don't miss it!
Bear Butte, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, holds deep spiritual and cultural significance for the Lakota and Cheyenne peoples. Bear Butte is a sacred site that has been used for prayer and ceremony since time immemorial. Its significance lies in its connection with Bear, one of the most important spirits.
Bear Butte is home to the Cheyenne people, who called it Noahvose. It was later adopted by the Lakota people, who named it Mato Paha, or Bear Mountain. This spiritual site has long been viewed as a place of physical and spiritual healing, where warriors would go before making war, or seek protection during hard times.
In recent times, Bear Butte has become a popular pilgrimage site for many, especially members of the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes. People come to Bear Butte to pray, heal, and seek guidance from Bear or other spiritual beings. They make offerings such as tobacco or sage, which are believed to aid in bringing about positive changes.
While Bear Butte is an integral part of Native American culture and spirituality, it is also a place for all to find peace and solace. It is open to the public free of charge and offers impressive views of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Bear Butte State Park was established in 1989 in order to protect Bear Butte's unique history and cultural significance for generations to come.
In recent years, Bear Butte has become an important site of protest and activism for Native American rights. It is a place where people gather to stand in solidarity against injustice and work to reclaim their traditions and culture. Bear Butte serves as a reminder that the history and spirituality of the Lakota and Cheyenne peoples are still alive today.
Bear Butte has a fascinating history, spiritual significance, cultural importance, and continued relevance today. Bear Butte remains a powerful symbol of resilience and strength for both Native Americans and non-Native Americans alike, standing strong amid the Black Hills of South Dakota as it has done for many centuries before.