Beneath the earth's surface, raw iron ore is extracted, taken from its place of origin, and thrown into a blast furnace. Melted down and purified, then forged into hundreds of pieces, each with its purpose.
Thousands of parts are bolted, welded, polished, greased, and oiled. Rather than in the fire, it now contains it. The addition of water produces the necessary pressure that presses on a cylinder and turns the wheels. The most transformative machine of the industrial revolution was the steam engine, resulting in the beloved and iconic steam locomotive.
Once abundant and heard throughout the country, steam locomotives fell out of favor for the more efficient diesel and electric engines. As a result, it's not common to find these beauties, but they exist. One such place is between Keystone and Hill City in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Robert and Joanna Warder bought the Black Hills Central Railroad in 1990 and restored locomotives No. 7 and No. 104. Since then, locals and visitors have enjoyed the ride between the mining towns of Keystone and Hill City. Operating and maintaining the line is a big job, but the Black Hills Central Railroad employees seem up to the task.
I had a chance to visit on a sunny winter day and met up with the Business Operations Manager, Nate Anderson. The action happens at the Hill City Depot during the winter, located at 222 Railroad Avenue.
Here you'll find the gift shop, located in a part of the original depot. Inside, you can buy tickets and purchase memorabilia. After Nate shows me around, we walked down the line to the yard.
We hop up on the passenger trains along the way, each containing the original hardware and restored to prime condition. The enclosed passenger car has large windows and glass panels engraved with the 1880 train logo and comfortable seats able to be reversed according to the direction.
The rest are open-air and preferable to me on a warm summer afternoon. The closer we get to the building, the more I notice the familiar smell of creosote used to preserve the wood railroad ties. Now the door opens. I can feel the warm air mixed with the smell of grease and metal.
Memories of my hometown of Erie, PA, run through my mind. General Electric manufactured locomotives there, and my family worked in a few industrial companies. So I know this smell, and it's oddly comforting.
Inside the building, restoration and maintenance take place. A complete rebuild is underway on one of the engines, with the other patiently waiting—a few workers inside sport the overalls and hog head hats (railroad engineer hats).
I always wondered what the inside of a steam locomotive looked like, and Nate was happy to explain. It was fascinating. There's so much that goes into the care of these mighty beasts. We're lucky to have several pieces of locomotive history right here at home.
Just outside facing the road is the oldest, No. 7. It's a fully working 1919 Baldwin locomotive and has starred in movies such as "Orphan Train," "Into the West," and "Gunsmoke."
The 1880 Train actually started in 1957, on the original line operated by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. It serviced gold mines between Keystone and Hill City, South Dakota, hauling cargo and passengers from 1879. It's the oldest continuously operating tourist train in the United States.
The Black Hills Central Railroad now carries thousands of passengers on a round-trip ride from Keystone to Hills City. The 1880 Train website displays the schedule, pricing, and frequently asked questions online. In addition, several events occur throughout the year, such as Old West Shootouts, Wine Express, Oktoberfest, and the Holiday Express.
The 1880 Train is one of many reasons to visit the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. My XO Adventures can now cap off your Southern or Northern Black Hills tour with an evening train ride from Hills City to Keystone.
Daniel Milks - Explorer, Traveler and Occasional Writer
How to see The Black Hills and BadlandsSo you've decided to come to the Black Hills of South Dakota and check Mount Rushmore off your list! Now, what do you do? First things first. Where are you going to stay? There are a lot of options, but where you stay is going to affect how you do things on a daily basis.
The main places of lodging when visiting the Black Hills and Badlands are Rapid City, Keystone, Hill City, and Custer State Park. Staying in and around Rapid City is the easiest logistically, but may not be the best if you're looking for a quiet getaway surrounded by nature.
I have a few recommendations for lodging in the Black Hills that you might find useful! Next up Is what to do? I know, you've got the checklist:
1.) Mount Rushmore
2.) The Buffalo
3.) Crazy Horse
How will you be able to do it all? Well, first you need to stay for at least 3 days in the Black Hills. That's the least amount of time. Second, in order to see as much as possible, you'll need to hire one of the many Rapid City Tour Companies, and hopefully, they know what they're doing.Black Hills and Badlands Tours
Tour the Northern and Southern Black Hills with a visit to the Badlands National Park. Go ahead, take a look at a map of the Black Hills and tell me what you think. Looks like Spaghetti right? The worst thing you could do is try to navigate all these roads yourself. I recommend you keep your concentration on the sight and sounds of the Black Hills and Badlands as you make your way through.
If possible, take a private tour of the Black Hills and Badlands. If you choose any of the bus tours, you'll have a good time but be limited in what you can see. The big busses can't fit down the roads you want to see, like Wildlife Loop Road, or the many places along Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.
Taking the side roads and exploring where others can't is the way to go. Speaking of Spearfish Canyon (my favorite), you can see and feel amazing surprises like Bridal Veil Falls, Roughlock Falls, and Spearfish Creek Falls.
All along the canyon wall, there are caves and formations millions of years old. Cheyenne Crossing has the best Indian Fry Bread I've ever experienced. If you've had better, email me! A great place to stay in the Northern Hills is Spearfish Canyon Lodge. It's so special out this direction, but I digress.
Still, want to know how to do the Black Hills in 3 days? Ok, well here it is. We already went over getting a private tour company. Once you've read the reviews on Google and you're happy go ahead and make the call or book online.
You're visiting National Parks so let's make the most of it. Once you've got your Black Hills Tour Company, you need to divide your time between 3 things:
1.) The Southern Black Hills
2.) The Northern Black Hills
3.) Badlands National Park.
You still don't know what you're doing, but hopefully, your Black Hills and Badlands Tour Company does.
Ok, so the Southern Black Hills. This is where you'll see Mt. Rushmore. Yes, it's amazing. As your guide questions and make sure to get a picture of the plaque that lists all the workers. None of them died on the project, and my favorite worker is "Big Dick". See if you can spot him.
Spend about an hour here. Go sit down in the amphitheater and look up at the monument rather than fighting for space with all the people up top. The visitors center is worth a look too. Ok, let's get out of here.
The next places to go are Iron Mountain Road, Custer State Park, the Needles Highway, and Crazy Horse Memorial. This is a full-day excursion. You can expect to be picked up around 8 AM and dropped off at around 4 PM. If the tour company is any good, they'll feed you lunch, have bottled water and snacks in the vehicle.
The Mount Rushmore and Southern Black Hills tour is the most popular. This is an amazing day, and if you didn't see a buffalo, you didn't have a good guide. If you saw a mountain goat, consider yourself lucky!
Next is the Northern Black Hills tour, or Spearfish Canyon Tour. This is the most peaceful and my favorite. Yes, yes, there's Deadwood and bang bang Calamity Jane, Wild Bill, and all the others. Maybe go see Deadwood first and watch a Wild West Shootout in the middle of the road.Northern Black Hills Adventure
If you brought the critters from home, they'll love it. Ice cream, trinkets, and shirts. Have your guide tell you about the hauntings, killings, thievery, gold, and tall tales before you skedaddle out of there.
Near Deadwood is the little town of Spearfish. There's the D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery here that your guide will visit. Next drive down the canyon, stop at all the waterfalls and then finish it off with Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary.
Read the "Turkey Shack" before you arrive and it'll all make sense. This is another full day of incredible views.
Last on the list but not least is Badlands National Park, a full-day tour. Tours of Badlands National Park vary, but it's not complete unless the guide visits both the Southern and Northern Unit of the Park. Before you even arrive there look out the windows to see the rolling hills of the plains and think Dances With Wolves.
Alien-like landscapes of erosion are vast in the Badlands. Multiple views are breathtaking. The Badlands has a wonderful road to travel through while you enjoy the landscape.
What's in all that dirt? A lot! Fossils, geodes, agates, and the history of the world. You're traveling through what used to be an ocean many times over. You're also making your way through the missing 7 thousand feet of the Black Hills. It washed all the way down into the Badlands.
Red, green, grey, yellow, and purple are just a few of the colors you'll enjoy as well as wildlife such as the Bison, Big-Horn Sheep, and Prairie Dogs. You can even experience this day on one of the bike tours offered in the park. Why go to the South Unit of the Badlands after all this?
Well, it's located right next to Pine Ridge Reservation, and some of the most important histories of the area took place here. The Southern Unit or Stronghold Unit of the Park is co-managed by the NPS and the Oglala Lakota. Stronghold Table is believed to be the last place the Ghost Dances were performed.
Both Sheeps Mountain Table and the Stronghold table are Holy places to the Lakota to this day. While visiting the park or anywhere in the Black Hills remember that this is Lakota Territory. There you have it. Three days of glorious sights, sounds, and memories.
Owner of My XO Adventures, explorer, daredevil and occasional writer.
There are plenty of reasons you should avoid South Dakota. As a resident of the state, I’d like you to take this list seriously, and prepare should you still make plans to visit.
As you can see visiting South Dakota isn’t for everyone. If you still feel like it might be worth your while, you can proceed.
Owner of My XO Adventures, Traveler and occasional writer.
The Pigtail Bridges are located at the most northern point of Iron Mountain Road (16A) , which terminates just before Mount Rushmore. Completed in 1930, Iron Mountain Road was built with the sole purpose of maximizing the enjoyment of visitors with the ever-popular automobile. C.C. Gideon, or “C.C.” as he was known is the engineer and Peter Norbeck is the visionary. When construction began on Mount Rushmore in 1927, there was a need to connect Custer State Park in the South, with Rushmore to the north. When funds were made available, the idea was to bypass the hills and construct a road that took a more direct approach. This would have been less costly, easier to maintain, and faster to travel.
Peter Norbeck objected and with his foresight, he pushed through what became one of the most sought-after roads to travel in the United States. The automobile had a great influence on construction and design. You might think well of course it did, but let’s take a look at why. In 1900 there were 8,000 automobiles on the road, by 1910 that increased to 350,000. As mass production and costs decreased that number jumped to 7.5 million in 1920. The middle class was increasing, and so was their desire for recreation. The automobile would take them there. We were becoming a Nation of automobiles.
Norbeck had a knack for long-term visionary planning. His rejection of the initial plans proved correct, and Iron Mountain Road started to become a reality. The idea was to maximize the experience visitors would have, especially traveling from South to North. Measures were taken to ensure the path would highlight the beautiful vistas while doing as little harm to the environment as possible. The road itself was to be an automobile owner’s playground.
Iron Mountain Road boasts 17 miles, 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 pigtails, 2 tunnels, 4 presidents, and 2 splits. Wow! It should be mentioned that the tunnels leading to Mount Rushmore were perfectly aligned so as you enter, Mount Rushmore is framed majestically at the far end. It teases visitors the entire way, building excitement for the participants. The Pigtail Bridges compliment the road by solving a problem and providing an exciting corkscrew route down the mountain. The route reached a point that was very steep, and a solution was needed that switchbacks couldn’t easily solve. This led to the idea of the Pigtail Bridges which at the time were rare, but not unheard of. The bridges act like elevators, going up or down depending on the direction. Locally harvested pine would be used in its construction, and great pains have been taken since to preserve its place on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Pigtail Bridges provide a whimsical ride down the mountain before reaching Mount Rushmore. Iron Mountain Road in its entirety draws visitors far and wide. Most notably, the Motorcycle Rally Riders zoom through this area in the first weeks of August each year. Car enthusiasts travel to the area to experience a road not made primarily with function, but form.
My XO Adventures takes visitors along this route each day, stopping to take in the views and talk about the history behind the construction and the people that made it possible. It’s yet another example of Peter Norbeck's vision of bringing visitors to the Black Hills in a delightful way. #HIFromSD #myxoadventures #blackhillsandbeyond #visitrapidcity #pigtailbridges