The Beauty and Variety of South Dakota's Black Hills

Black Hills tourism all began with Colonel George Armstrong Custer (yes, that Custer—as in massacre). While the Black Hills had been designated an Indian reservation by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, Custer’s regiment, which was conducting a survey of the area, discovered gold. While he wired notice of the find to superiors in a Top Secret memo, the discovery was too hot to keep secret for long. When word leaked out, miners stormed into the area, seeking their fortune and fame and overrunning the natives. The miners brought merchants, who in turn, built towns. The towns created stories and images of the beautiful scenery as a means of attracting tourists, which, in turn, brought more businesses. The rest is history.

The Black Hills, which includes Custer State Park, one National Park and two National Monuments, offers one of the largest and diverse concentrations of natural beauty in the country.

pinacles - cliffforest view - deforest (2)Sylvan Lake (7)

The scenery consists of sweeping views, pine covered hills, granite cliffs, tranquil lakes and some of the most dramatic columns and pillars (especially along the magnificent Needles Highway) you could ever wish to see. The grandeur does not end at the earth’s surface. The hills are laced with hundreds of underground caves, including two of the largest in the world (Wind and Jewel Caves).

Pinacles (13)Cave Entrance

For those who prefer their scenery man made, there are two giant sculptures, the iconic Mount Rushmore and the still in-progress Crazy Horse Monument which, when competed, will be the largest in the world. And if you want wildlife, head to the southern reaches of Custer Park, where the Wildlife Loop will provide views of wild buffalo, burros and many other types of wildlife, or, head further south to the Mammoth fossil site.

Mt Rushmore (2)Crazy Horse (2)Animal - Buffalo (2)

While Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument will be discussed in our August 17th blog, this article provides an overview of a few of the natural sites on which we focused during a very full two days, before heading north to the area around Deadwood (which will be discussed in our August 24th and 31st blogs).

Black Hills Natural Highlights

While man has certainly played a big role in changing the Black Hills, many of the most spectacular and memorable sites and things to do have been provided courtesy of nature (although man certainly made them more accessible and comfortable). The area, covered in pine forests (big swaths of which have been decimated by and preventively cut to limit damage by the pine beetle) is adorned with granite mountains, lakes and eerily-carved outcroppings that tower above a floor of limestone (created when the area was covered by a shallow sea) that is pocked by hundreds of caves.

It also has a number of historic sites. These include original remnants of a small stockade-based fort that gold miners illegally built on land granted the Plains Indian by the Laramie Treaty of 1886 and, most impressively, the entire downtown area of Deadwood South Dakota, which is discussed in detail in our August 24th blog, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Of the many natural sites we saw, two stood out:

  • Needles Highway (especially the Cathedral Spires Trail); and
  • Jewel Cave National Monument.

Needles Highway (SD Rt 87), which runs about 14 miles between the town of Custer and Sylvan Lake, is one of the most beautiful stretches of U.S highway we have driven, at least outside some of the National Parks. It provides amazing views, from all perspectives of granite pillars and needles that were eroded from mountains by eons of ice, rain and wind. While the entire drive, which has many scenic turnouts, is breathtaking, a number of sites merit particular attention. These include:

  • The three one-lane tunnels carved through the mountains and the scenic stop after the one furthest to the north;
  • The Needle’s Eye, a pinnacle in which erosion carved the eye;
  • Sylvan Lake, a lake surrounded by and pocked by large granite outcroppings; and
  • The easy, incredibly beautiful, mile-long Cathedral Spires Trail, which takes you through the most scenic section of the Badlands.

tunnel (5)Needle's EyeSylvan Lake (10)

The Cathedral Spires Trail was, without question, our favorite stop along the road. Although short and easy, you are surrounded by peaks and pinnacles and end up at one of the park’s highlights, the Needle’s Eye.

pinacle - wallpinacles - great (3)pinacles - greatpinacles - trail (9)

Jewel Cave, the second longest cave system in the world, with more than 160 miles of passages. While the National Park Service offers a number of different tours, we took the 1¾-hour Historic Lantern Tour, in which we walked, climbed and stooped through the ½-mile section, carrying only old-style kerosene lanterns for light. The rangers explained the history and geology of the cave and how the formations were created. Our (or at least my) greatest regret is that we did not see any of the nine species of bat that call the cave home.

Cave (2)CaveCave - Detail

Black Hills Lodges and Restaurants

Although each Black Hills town has its own hotels, motels, restaurants and cafes, some of the best are in the park’s four lodges–State Game, Creekside, Blue Bell and Sylvan Lake. We managed to sample all four. We stayed in the modern and comfortable Creekside Lodge, ate next door at the historic State Game Lodge (dining on Indian Fry Bread with a very good chicken salad, relatively tasteless elk medallions and a delicious buffalo filet mignonette, all whole watching live buffalo grace on the front lawn). The next day, after a visit to Jewel Cave and the historic Gordon Stockade, we had lunch at Blue Bell Lodge (sharing a buffalo ribeye steak and onion rings) and then after and an afternoon driving and hiking along the incredibly beautiful Needles Highway, we celebrated with a drink at the stately Sylvan Lake Lodge.

Unfortunately, we allotted only one day for the park, plus another day in Deadwood and one more to side trips outside the park. This, as evidenced by the sites we had to skip and the very limited time we had to hike, was not nearly enough. If you go, you should dedicate a minimum of one additional day.

The Roads Not Taken

Before listing our favorites, I need to qualify. We were not able to make it to two sites that were high on our list:

· The Mammoth site, which is located down by Hot Springs, contains one of the largest collections of fossils of mammoths, giant bears, camels and other prehistoric creatures in the world. It also provides an indoor excavation site, full-size replicas of many of the animals and an explanation of the scientific methods employed at this and other archeological sites; and

· Wind Cave, located just north of Mammoth, which is supposed to be very different than jewel cave, and has one of the best displays of “boxwork” calcite formations of any cave.

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