When I told my friends that I was going to South Dakota, most of them just gave me a “why would anyone go to South Dakota?” look. I have traveled the globe and been to many fantastic places, so what is my fascination with the Black Hills? A few places in America have been on my list for a long time and it seemed to be a good way to knock a few of these spots off my list. It turned out to be an amazing trip!
When I was 15, my family did a 2 week long trip to Utah to visit some friends. As we were driving back, I begged and pleaded my mom to redirect our trip to Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore even though it was a long way in the wrong direction. The only reason I really knew about either place was that I had been given a 3D Viewmaster for Christmas and those were two places that practically jumped out of the lens and called out to me. She eventually conceded and we had a fabulous time driving our “Herbie the Love Bug” Volkswagen through the mountains to see these places. On the way back home, I was looking through a brochure and saw an article about another giant mountain carving called “Crazy Horse” that had been started in the late 40s and was a long way from being finished. The entire mountain was being blasted to create this sculpture. By the time I found out about this, we were somewhere in Nebraska. So, at 15 years old, it got added to my list. Some years later, I saw “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind” and once I discovered it was a real place, I then added Devil’s Tower as well. Thirty five years passed, I have traveled the world and somehow never ended up anywhere near these places. I decided to change that this year.
There are a lot of good deals to Denver during ski season and I took advantage of a ridiculously cheap fare from Houston and snagged a car rental for $7/day. Instead of the normal ski vacation, I thought I’d do things a little different. I figured out that Denver was only a 5 hour drive to Rapid C ity, SD and that’s where my adventures began. I arrived in Denver in the afternoon, grabbed my rental car and started driving.
The first thing I noticed when I reached South Dakota was that the people were extremely friendly: Unbelievably friendly. Walking into a convenience store, I was greeted as if I were the most important person that ever strode through that door. Everyone was amazingly helpful. It was like something out of a movie. My second observation was that the prices in South Dakota were much lower than what I expected. A drink that costs $10 in Colorado might be $3 in SD. Hotels were half the price. A lot of attractions were free and the casinos seemed to be much more generous than the ones in Vegas.
We got up early and headed from our hotel in Blackhawk to Rapid City. If I could do it over again, I think I would probably have stayed in Keystone. It’s a fun touristy town just a few minutes from Mount Rushmore. Passing through Rapid City, our first stop was Dinosaur Park. I love quirky roadside attractions and this one was only 5 minutes out of the way and made for some funny pictures. Since it was off season, we had the park to ourselves.
From Rapid City to Mount Rushmore there are endless entertaining places from The Cosmos of the Black Hills (a mystery spot) to Storybook Island. There’s a Flintstones Camping Park that has some good photo ops as well as other roadside photo ops. Of course the big ticket is Mount Rushmore. It’s a one-hit wonder. You see it, you take a picture of it, you go “wow”, then you take another picture of it and then it’s off the gift shop. It’s $10 to park, but the viewpoint to see the presidents has had some nice upgrades to handle the large summer crowds. You can also grab a bison burger at the restaurant if you’re feeling wild and crazy.
Next on the list is the Crazy Horse memorial. It’s only about 20 minutes from Mount Rushmore. Crazy Horse was started by one of the sculptors who worked on Mount Rushmore and it’s been under construction for almost 70 years. Until a few years ago, you really had to use your imagination to see what it was supposed to be, but in 1998 the face was finished. Crazy Horse memorial is the world’s largest carving. You can read about it’s history at www.crazyhorsememorial.org. To truly appreciate this memorial, one needs to watch the short film at the visitor’s center. For a few dollars, a bus takes you down to the base of the mountain. You’re not allowed to walk there because of potential dynamite blasting accidents. You can go face to face with Crazy Horse and stand on his arm, but they charge $125 to do that.
The next stop was Custer. Custer is a nice little touristy town that’s at the crossroads of several famous landmarks besides Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. Wind Cave, Jewel Cave and Custer State Park are all within 20 minutes of Custer. Wind Cave is purported to be one of the longest caves in the world and is famous for rare formations called boxwork. We discovered that the caves had very specific tour times and it was such a beautiful day, decided to stay above ground.
The next destination was Custer State Park. Right outside the town is a beautiful stretch of road that winds through the mountains and rivers. If you take the scenic loop, you can spot herds of bison and other wildlife. If you go the other directions, you end up at Wind Cave, which has the distinction of not only being the second largest cave in the world, but one of the few caves that contain a formation called “boxwork”. Jewel cave is also a short distance away and is a popular tourist attraction.
After winding through the hills that make up Custer State Park, we headed back towards Rapid City. I have always been curious about Sturgis, SD, the town that hosts North America’s biggest motorcycle rally. It’s a motorcycle madhouse during the rally, but pretty calm and laid back the rest of the time. There’s a motorcycle museum as well as the biker bars that you might have seen on reality shows. Full Throttle is a huge blue collar behemoth of giant steel props including what I think used to be a bridge for the roof. It’s only open for the season, so I ended up in Knuckles instead. What’s cooler than motorcycles, antique gas pumps, bison heads, and native American memorabilia all crammed into one place? Not much.
The last stop for the evening was Deadwood. I knew nothing about Deadwood before I arrived, but was very pleasantly surprised. Although the town has burned down a hundred times, the citizens keep rebuilding it and everything has a cool western old-fashioned feel to it. You can go into Wild Bill’s, the famous bar where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back of the head or Saloon #10 which has the unofficial chair that it might have occurred in as well as lots of other cool memorabilia. One of the most interesting spots in Deadwood is the cemetery. It’s built on a hill and has the remains of Wild Bill, Calamity Jane and a few other famous western heroes. Wild Bill’s grave is littered with small bottles of liquor, casino chips and various other offerings as if he were some Buddhist God or something. I got a great deal at a Casino hotel; Only $35/night. The machines are much more generous than their Vegas counterparts. I won playing penny machines. It had been an awesome day!
Day 2 was full of adventure as well. After an amazing Bloody Mary at Saloon 10, we were off to Deadwood’s biggest antique shops. I’m not really a big antique aficionado, but this store was impressive. An amazing collection of very interesting historical pieces. It was the plan to see Devil’s Tower next, but as I was talking to the owner, a couple sauntered in bragging about their snowmobiling adventures. They gave me a phone number, a map and we were off! It costs $150 to rent a snowmobile for the day or $80 for 4 hours. I chose option 2 and went outside to check out my rental. I had been snowmobiling once before, but often you are either required to go in a group or you’re confined in a fenced in area to keep the vehicles from disappearing. This was not the case here. You get a helmet, a 2 minute lesson and you’re in business. The whole area is full of trails that connect the towns together so you can virtually get anywhere you want by snowmobile as long as there’s snow on the ground. Snowmobiling is quite fun and scary at the same time.You have the feeling that any wrong move will plunge you over the edge with a 500 lb machine on you. Then there’s the narrow bridges and the trees that are waiting to catch you if you dare to turn the handlebar a little too much.
After a couple of hours of hi-octane thrills, we headed towards Spearfish Canyon. The drive is a beautiful one with frozen waterfalls and amazing mountains. There’s a lot of beautiful nature to see before you get into the actual town of Spearfish. After Spearfish there’s not a whole lot of anything until you get to Devil’s Tower about 2 hours away. Maybe I should retract that. There is the very interesting little town of Aladdin, SD, population 15. There’s one store with antique counters, a few trailer homes and a large population of wild turkeys terrorizing the neighborhood. The own, it turns out, is for sale. For a measly 1.5 million, you can own your own town, become the mayor, the postmaster, the mechanic, the whatever….. In Aladdin, SD, you can be anyone you want to be. There’s no competition.
The rest of the drive was mostly flat until we got close to Devil’s Tower. Sticking up like a mutant volcano, it appears over 10 miles away. If you’ve never heard of Devil’s Tower, it made it’s movie debut in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. As one gets closer, you can see the strange pea green color and the marks on the side that make no geological sense. There’s an old story about 2 native American girls who were running away from a bear and got on a rock and shouted a prayer for the Great Spirit to help them. The rock began to rise taller and taller while the bear had his claws dragging down the side. All I can say is it must have been a very big bear. I will admit, it does look like claw marks.
There was no one there at the park. No one. One of the great things about traveling off season is that you miss the crowds. Since no one is there, there’s no one at the entrance to charge you. It’s a win win. All you can think about this mountain as you walk up the path to get closer is how strange it looks. If you come in the summer, you can actually book a climbing trip to the top. There was no one climbing it the day we were there. After an hour or so of taking pictures and walking around the base of the mountain, it was time to head to Hot Springs, SD. It was a few hours drive, but one of the only glints of civilization after Montana. We found a great little bar and restaurant called The Vault. It was open mike and once I mentioned I could sing and play, I had a gig. No one is a stranger in South Dakota. As soon as we sat down, a woman came up and asked us where we were from and then invited us to her table. The musician was so happy that I could play some songs that he didn’t know, he didn’t want me to stop. We enjoyed an amazing hamburger. I don’t know what it is about South Dakota beef, but it’s outstanding. We found a great little hotel for $40. It was one of the nicest in the area and came with breakfast and a gift bag of assorted goodies. I was really starting to like South Dakota.
Day 4 was going to involve a lot of driving so we got an early start. Our first stop was Mammoth museum in Hot Springs. We were the only patrons that morning and for $10, had a guide who showed us the excavation site and answered all of our questions. The site is covered by a large building and most of the mammoth bones are undisturbed and left exactly as found. These are not fossils, but actual bones of giant creatures about 3 to 4 times the size of an elephant. These bones managed to survive deterioration through some strange geological flukes. There are 60 mammoths discovered so far and there’s probably plenty more to be revealed. This site is still being excavated and is very interesting. It’s everything that you never knew about mammoths packed into one cool building.
From there we headed to Wind Cave. Unfortunately the cave tour hours required waiting around for 3 hours which was not going to work in our schedule. We headed back towards Nebraska and noticed hundreds of prairie dogs standing on there hind legs on the plains. They were very entertaining as they ran around then stopped and stood up like African meerkats. Bison droppings could be seen but no animals were in sight. Seeing animals in the wild always ends up being the luck of the draw.
We headed through Nebraska to our next destination, Carhenge. Carhenge is a quirky nostalgic roadside attraction in the middle of nowhere. By nowhere, I mean Nebraska. I’ve been through Nebraska twice and to date, it’s my least favorite state. There’s just not a lot going on. I do like quirky though and Carhenge was the ticket. Built in the late 80s as a memorial to his father, Jim Reinders created a unique copy of Stonehenge made with vintage American cars and painted gray. It’s another one of those places you just have to see so that you can say you saw it. Get the picture, get the t-shirt, post it on Facebook.
We continued to the Colorado border and thought it might be nice to spend the night in Estes Park. One of the most famous “haunted” hotels in America is there. It’s the Stanley Hotel, built by the inventor of the Stanley Steamer, a steam powered car from the early 20th century. Besides being famous for that, the hotel is associated with the Stephen King movie “The Shining”. King stayed at the hotel one winter and was inspired to write his novel and also to film scenes from the miniseries there. The hotel has had many ghost sightings and even has it’s own “Redrum” beer. The Shining plays on channel 42 continuously so there’s no chance of forgetting the hotels association with the story. It’s a great hotel, the restaurant is amazing and the rooms are pretty comfy for being over 100 years old. No ghosts woke me up in the middle of the night, but it did begin to snow
We had been moving very quickly from one place to another and decided that we would have a chill day. Literally. It had snowed all night and the ground was covered with a blanket of pure white flakes.We had an amazing breakfast at the Stanley hotel’s restaurant and drove our car a few miles to Rocky Mountain National Park. The snow had made the roads icy so several areas were closed. We were lucky to see a small herd of elk crossing the road and some beautiful snow covered scenery.
I’m not a marijuana smoker but I was mildly curious about the new legal pot stores that had just gotten the go ahead to sell cannabis to anyone who wanted it. We decided to see if we could find one of these stores on the way to our next destination, but had no luck. The addresses we looked up seemed to be nonexistent. We had been lucky in our winning at our casino hotel in Deadwood and decided to try out another in Blackhawk, Colorado. We checked in to our hotel and 30 minutes at the slot machines yielded $250.
There’s not a lot to do in Blackhawk except gambling. There is no place that isn’t a casino or doesn’t has a casino attached to it. Every restaurant and every bar is in on the business. Once you’ve decided to cash out, you’re pretty much going to have to sit in your room or find a restaurant. We had a plan to get up early for skiing, so we stayed in.
It is actually possible to ski in the morning and make an afternoon flight if you choose Loveland Ski area. It’s the closest resort area to the airport and that was the plan. Loveland was only 40 minutes from Blackhawk and was pretty well put together. It doesn’t enjoy the fame of Aspen or Breckenridge because it doesn’t really have a town to hang out in after skiing. There were a lot of snowboarders there and I saw a lot more people wearing helmets than I’ve seen anywhere else. We skiied until noon, turned our stuff in, turned in our car and jumped on a plane.
So that’s it. Six days with lots to do. History, animals, snow sports, ghost hauntings, great food, kitsch and famous monuments squeezed into less than a week. Looking for something to do? Try this itinerary.
Planning another trip to Orlando? Save some money and have a great time learning about our nation’s history in South Dakota and Wyoming.