Our car overheated one day in a remote portion of Montana or eastern Oregon (after 41 years, I don't recall exactly - but I'll bet my dad does). Nonetheless, Dad and a local managed to get us back on the road and to that day's destination. My father had meticulously mapped out our route and lined up all our lodging in those pre-internet days. Deviled ham aside, it was a trip of a lifetime, and the inspiration for me to return to South Dakota these many years later, when my nephew's wedding presented a perfect opportunity for another, not quite so long, road trip.
I'll forewarn you this post is a long one. Pour yourself a cup of coffee (or your beverage of choice after your Father's Day festivities have quieted down) and settle in for a little armchair traveling on one of my most spectacular days in South Dakota.
After two nights in my Custer State Park cabin at Sylvan Lake, I was on the move again. But before I would dine in Rapid City, I wanted to see more in the southern Black Hills. After I checked out at Sylvan Lake Lodge, I saw this deer.
Although you’ll see lots of billboards on I-90 for touristy cave tours, the two caves I kept reading about that sounded truly compelling were Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, both to the south and west of Custer S.P.
I've come to the conclusion that much of the most detailed and helpful advice I read about vacationing in this part of South Dakota pertained more to the busier part of the June-August tourist season and that I lucked out being there Memorial Day week.
Particularly for Jewel Cave, admonitions to obtain advance reservations and aim for the first tour of the day made me feel like a slacker for not having called before I left Ohio. Even the official website for Jewel Cave insists you must speak to a live person to reserve a spot for any cave tour, provide credit card info, then arrive at least half an hour ahead to pick up your ticket. I called first thing Monday (Memorial Day) hoping to book something – anything! – within the next two days. Turned out availability was wide open for Wednesday, so I settled on the second “Scenic Tour” of the day. Trying to leave myself plenty of time to arrive that prescribed 30 minutes early, I ended up at the Jewel Cave ticket booth about 15 minutes before the first tour started and was asked if I wanted to go on that one instead. Sure – that would leave more of my day for other explorations!
Not to worry. Those guys must have been some of the avid (and trained) cavers who extend the mapping of Jewel Cave, the “second longest cave in the world,” each year. Soon an announcement came over the PA system, and a National Park Service employee in official dark green garb headed up our tour group, with two others following at the rear to make sure no tour-goers went astray. We descended in an elevator that took us the equivalent of 23 stories into the cave, to the “upper cave" elevator exit. With ramps and plenty of stopping points to listen to our guide, I found the tour more exhilarating then strenuous. The tour was over all too soon when we emerged to take the elevator from the "lower cave" stop.
Our friendly and informative NPS tour guide explained lots of geological stuff I have failed to retain, even though she presented them in accessible terminology. Some cave formations are likened to popcorn, there were “draperies” that made me think of Scarlett O’Hara (or Carol Burnett), and when she pointed out one magnificent formation they call “Cave Bacon,” I could see exactly why. Alas, I have learned that photographing in a cave is even more challenging than in a dimly lit restaurant. So I’ll just share these photos that kinda sorta turned out.
Next on my itinerary: Crazy Horse Memorial. I wasn’t even aware of this mountain carving the first time I visited South Dakota in 1970. I'll bet my dad wasn't either. But I learned this mammoth project was begun in 1948, after Lakota elders asked Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish American fighter-turned-sculptor from Boston who had worked on Mt. Rushmore, to undertake the memorial “so the White Man would know the Red Man has great heroes also.”
During that family trip 41 years ago, we stopped at Mt. Rushmore, and I recall being non-plussed. Mountains are beautiful just as nature has sculpted them. It struck me as presumptuous in the midst of such scenery to carve faces of four dead presidents on the side of one. I declined to stop and pay to see Mt. Rushmore this trip, but was very glad I visited Crazy Horse.
Eventually the grounds are to be home to a medical center and a university for Native Americans from throughout North America. Although the family and the memorial’s foundation could have raised funds by selling stone blasted from the mountain to be turned into gravel, they are keeping it all on site, where it will eventually be used in building those facilities.
The visitor center is still a fair distance from the mountain itself. But you can hop on a school bus that takes you to the base of the mountain, and well worth the $4.
These bus tours run about every 15 minutes during the summer and last about 25 minutes. You get to see the mountain from the far side of the visitor complex, then can disembark at the midpoint of the mountain. I thought I’d learned a lot from the orientation film, but our bus driver shared many more fascinating details. He’d clearly worked there a long time, knew the family, and cared about the mission of the place.
The size of this thing is hard to grasp (all four presidents on Mt. Rushmore collectively are smaller than the face of Crazy Horse, if I recall what my bus guide said correctly). Here are photos from the base of the mountain I shot thanks to that bus ride.
I had one more "must-see" on my list before heading to Rapid City for dinner: Iron Mountain Road. The 17-mile drive from Crazy Horse to Mt. Rushmore is so scenic and lush with trees, I didn’t mind the several stops I encountered for road construction and one-way traffic. I was surprised at what a close view I had of the dead presidents from Hwy. 244 as I drove past the entrance to Mt. Rushmore. But I would see them again – several times – after I turned south on 16A, that portion of which is known as Iron Mountain Road, part of the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway.
Norbeck was a South Dakota governor, U.S. senator, and conservationist whose name I’d seen repeatedly. Among the projects he championed for his native state of South Dakota were Mt. Rushmore and Iron Mountain Road, which features several more of those one-lane tunnels – these designed to perfectly frame views of Mt. Rushmore.
At the top of Iron Mountain Road is a scenic pull-off where you can see Mt. Rushmore like this.
It was disjarring to go from that kind of landscape to my motel in Rapid City on I-90. But I had a dinner reservation at The Corn Exchange, which I'd read somewhere was the best restaurant in South Dakota. This Western-casual-meets-fine-dining storefront in downtown Rapid City did not disappoint.
My appetizer was this corn and scallion buttermilk pancake topped with house-smoked Black Hills trout, a cucumber-horseradish raita made with Cowgirl Creamery creme fraiche, and these spectacular eggs.
For my entree, I went with a house specialty, the Corn Exchange steak, made that night with bison from local source 777 Buffalo Ranch.
After such a great meal, I couldn't resist dessert, this lovely chocolate pot de creme with raspberries. A satisfying conclusion to a very memorable day.
xoxo to all, and especially to my dad,