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The Black Hills
Thomas R. Fletcher
When I think of a place to spend a winter vacation, South Dakota isn't the first state to come to mind. Maybe it should be--especially the Black Hills area. Much isn't heard about South Dakota, it's a quiet state. Simply because we don't hear much about the state doesn't mean it doesn't have a lot to offer. It means it hasn't been discovered. The Black Hills lie along South Dakota's western border and take up a space approximately 50 miles wide (east-west) and 100 miles long (north-south). Most of the hills are publicly owned, part of the Black Hills National Forest. The elevation of the hills ranges from 3,200+ feet to just over 7,000 feet. The hills take their name from the dark evergreens, Ponderosa Pines predominant among them, that cover much of the land, which make the hills appear black from a distance. Thus the Indians referred to them as "Paha Sapa," the hills that are black.
An exploration of the Black Hills, first of all, involves getting there. If one is flying in, Rapid City will be the destination. Located midway along the North-South stretch of the hills, the city makes a good base for branching out and exploring. Before venturing out, there are a few things to see right in Rapid City.
Not to be missed is The Journey museum. The Journey covers 2.5 million years of Black Hills history, from the geological formation, through the dinosaurs, through the Native Americans and early pioneer period. The museum represents the combination of four previous major collections, now all under one roof covering 48,000 square feet of exhibition space. In one darkened section, called "The Abyss" the story of the Black Hills creation is related--from both the scientific and Lakota (Native American) points of view. One should allow at least one and half hours for seeing the museum, but could easily spend much more time.
If visiting the first week of February, don't miss the Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo. This the second largest such event held in the United States--from roping and barrel races to bull riding--fun and excitement for every family member.
The Black Hills shelter the Rapid City area, allowing it to have milder winters than one might expect (sometimes referred as the "banana belt"). Rapid City's winters may be mild, but just a few miles away, and a few thousand feet higher in elevation, one finds a winter wonderland. The hills receive up to 220 inches of snow each year and the most is made of it. There are miles and miles of cross-country ski trails. The national forest has an excellent snowmobile trail system with 336 miles of groomed trails. There are 10 businesses along the trail system offering snowmobile rentals.
We've all seen pictures of Mount Rushmore in our school textbooks. It is one thing to see pictures in a book and quite another to see this memorial of monumental proportions in person. Each face, carved in the solid granite of this 5,725 feet high mountain, is 60 feet high and can be seen from miles away. In summer there are up to 25,000 visitors a day. In winter, there are only a handful daily.
The four presidents, whose faces are carved in stone, were chosen to represent the birth, growth, preservation, and development of the country. George Washington was Commander of the Revolutionary army and our first president. Thomas Jefferson was author of our Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln was responsible for ending slavery and preserving the Union. Theodore Roosevelt placed the United States on the world scene as a major player with the construction of the Panama Canal.
If you haven't seen the memorial for awhile, get ready for some changes. A new 2,000-seat amphitheater has been constructed as has a new $10 million concession center. New parking facilities have doubled the previous capacity--needed for the summer crowds.
Not far away is the town of Custer and Custer State Park. The town is rather small, less than 2,000 population, and has a very friendly atmosphere. The town and the park are named for Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, who led an expedition into the area in May of 1874. His camp was established along French Creek, in what is today part of the park. His Seventh Calvary's discovery of gold in the Black Hills caused the original influx of white settlers to the area.
Custer State Park covers 73,000 acres and is the second largest state park in the United States. Within the park is a free-roaming herd of bison, numbering between 1,400-1,500 members. Taking a drive along the 18-mile "Wildlife Loop," one will spot many wildlife species. I spotted bison, pronghorn, a sharp-tailed grouse, prairie dogs, mule deer, and wild turkey--pretty good for a short drive.
Bordering Custer State Park is Wind Cave National Park. The cave was discovered by a couple of brothers in 1881. They heard a whistling sound and upon investigation found a small hole in the ground with wind gushing out--thus the name. The wind is caused by the difference of the atmospheric pressure within the cave and that outside. The park takes in 28,000 above ground acres that are great for wildlife viewing. The cave joined the National Park system in 1903 and is the world's seventh longest cave.
A bit further south is the town of Hot Springs, whose big draw is the hot springs. Evan's Plunge features the world's largest indoor, warm, spring-fed swimming pool. The pool measures 50 by 200 feet with a natural water temperature of 87 degrees. The facilities include a spa and fitness center, water slides, steam rooms, and hot tubs.
While in Hot Springs, don't miss the Mammoth Site. The site has the largest concentration of Columbian and woolly mammoth bones ever discovered in one location. It is thought that over 100 mammoths will be found when the excavation is complete. (A total of 51 has now been found.) A 20,000 square foot facility and education center has been constructed over the 26,000-year-old sinkhole where the excavation is taking place. Excavation is ongoing, but only takes place during the month of July each year. The reason being, it takes the rest of the year to preserve and catalog the finds of that one month.
It is thought the animals were attracted to the warm waters filling the sinkhole but once in the water, could not climb back up the slippery banks. The animals were trapped over a 300-700 year period. Visitors can witness the ongoing excavation as well as see the bones as they were found. This National Natural Landmark is the only North American site where fossil mammoth bones can be seen where they were found. Since the excavation work is ongoing, the exhibits are ever-changing. This area is of special importance in that the bones are in the actual "death area," not having been washed down a stream or carried to another location by carnivores. The site is not an "archaeological" site, since no sign of man has been found, but rather a paleontological site where fossil plants and animals are found.
In the northern Black Hills one finds the town of Spearfish and the Spearfish Canyon National Scenic Byway. US 14A is a gorgeous drive, winding through the narrow canyon--only an average of 29 feet wide. The rugged scenery, with towering limestone palisades, a thousand feet high tightly hems in Spearfish Creek, which lies at the canyon bottom. No wonder the canyon was chosen as a scenic backdrop for the movie Dances With Wolves. Late evening sun striking the high rock spires causes an eerie glow, and the Ponderosa pines seem to defy gravity, growing on those vertical rock bastions.
Naturally, many people want more than a drive through. Spearfish Canyon Resort is the place to stay. The resort couldn't be in a more beautiful location. The resort has many activities available for the guests. Horse-drawn sleigh rides in winter and hiking are only two.
Just south of Spearfish is the Big Hill Cross Country Ski Area, within the national forest. Here one finds 16 miles of trails in a complex of six loops along the Spearfish Canyon Rim. Get a map from the ranger district, rent some gear in town and hit the trails.
Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher