The Ultimate Guide to the Black Hills
The Black Hills (Paha Sapa)
Roaring out of the Earth in Great Plains of South Dakota are the magnificent Black Hills. Over 60 million years ago, through a great uplift the Black Hills rose high above the land, but 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. Now, 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. Most of the Black Hills are composed of granite, along with quartz, feldspar and mica. Wondering through the area, you'll notice the ground glitters as if being surrounded by jewels in every direction.
The Native Americans of this region called this mountain range Paha Sapa, meaning The Heart of All Things. This was and is considered a sacred area by many, including the Lakota Tribe. The Lakota are made up of seven bands or tribes. These are the Sichangu, Brule, Oglala, Itazipcho, Miniconjou and Sihasapa. The Black Hills is considered a part of their origin story, with the rights of ownership in dispute to this day.
Significant points of interest for visitors to this area 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. 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 being divided between two areas, the Northern and Southern Black Hills. In the Northern Black Hills, you'll find majestic Spearfish Canyon, filled with hiking trails, waterfalls, the nearby Wild West City of Deadwood and one of my personal favorites, Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary. In my experience, the Northern Black Hills plays second fiddle to the Southern Black Hills to 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 a number of reasons. Generally, when people think of the Black Hills of South Dakota, they conjure up images of Mount Rushmore, with the faces of four great Presidents, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. This is certainly quite an accomplishment and beautiful work of art. There is a great 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 monument 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 each year.
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 to a sacred mountain. Mount Rushmore was named after an east coast attorney sent here to survey mining claims. Those he asked had no idea of the name of the mountain, so it was named after him - Charles E. Rushmore. 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 a place the Lakota came to pray, carry out ceremonies and considered the center of the universe. Protests, petitions altering the mountain and disputes over the land continue on into the unforeseeable future. It's my belief that we understand as much as possible, and from both sides the history of this special place.
If you make a visit to Mount Rushmore, you can't miss the drive on Iron Mountain Road. Construction of this road was meant to compliment the mountain, cause as 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, has 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 pigtails, 3 tunnels, and two spits. It runs from Mount Rushmore, and terminates near Custer State Park.