In 1775, Standing Buffalo, an Oglala Sioux, discovered an area called Paha Sapa, meaning “mountains that are black.” Seen from a distance, the dense stands of pine and fir make the hills appear black against the western sky. The Black Hills were considered the center of the universe and sacred by the Sioux Indians and an oasis in the prairie by the early settlers.
Known for the gold that lured the early explorers and prospectors, the Black Hills now lure the resident and traveler to a wealth of natural wonders, more valuable than the prospectors’ gold ever was.
Within the broad confines of the Black Hills National Forest, you’ll find Custer State Park; two national monuments, Wind Cave and Devils Tower; one national park, Jewel Cave; one national memorial, Mount Rushmore; numerous sparkling lakes; and hundreds of miles of beautiful hiking trails. Fifty miles to the east, carved from the eroded remains of an ancient sea floor, is Badlands National Park.
According to Sioux legend, Wind Cave is the place where the buffalo were blown from under the earth to feed the Lakota people. In reality, changing atmospheric pressure causes a constant wind to blow from the cave that will chill the unwary who fail to bring a jacket or sweater — even in the summer.
Devils Tower is truly a natural marvel — not just a movie prop for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Just across the Wyoming border, Devils Tower looms over the Belle Fourche River where antelope and prairie dogs roam its base. For the truly adventurous and qualified, a climb up the tower with ropes and pitons will verify there are no little green men to be found.
JEWEL CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Jewel Cave National Monument is reached by taking an elevator several hundred feet downward to follow the twists and turns of a cavern that is still not completely explored.
BLACK HILLS NATIONAL FOREST
Surrounding all this is the Black Hills National Forest, which offers picnic and camping areas, hiking and riding trails, and fishing and boating on numerous streams and lakes.
West of Rapid City is Sturgis, host of the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally — one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the United States.
The city of Spearfish, northwest of Rapid City, offers a scenic driving route. Spearfish Canyon has several scenic natural wonders such as Bridal Veil Falls and Roughlock Falls.
CUSTER STATE PARK
Custer State Park, in the central Black Hills, is where the largest herd of wild buffalo in the nation roams free. A wildlife trail takes you through the area where the main herd grazes, and while it may seem calm, several tons of charging buffalo can go anywhere they want. If you want a closer look, use your camera or binoculars. If you desire more refined recreation, stay at one of the four lodges that serve the park.
BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Fifty miles east of Rapid City, away from the trees and hills, one can find a different type of beauty in the erosion-carved spires of Badlands National Park. Carved from the eroded mud of an ancient sea floor, the Badlands were so named by Native Americans and settlers for their unsuitability as habitat and the difficulties encountered in traveling through them.
Dinosaur Park, on Skyline Drive in Rapid City, is home to gigantic cement dinosaurs. From Dinosaur Park, one has a magnificent view of Rapid City and the Black Hills. For more information, call 605-343-8687.
MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL
A quick 45 minutes from Rapid City sits the crown jewel of the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Carved from the granite of the mountain, the stone faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln stare out across the Black Hills as a tribute to the men and women who helped make America what it is today. The memorial is free and is best seen in the midmorning light. However, a special lighting ceremony, held from early summer to late fall, adds special meaning to the memorial. A blend of pageantry and patriotism, the ceremony lights the memorial against the night sky.
CRAZY HORSE MONUMENT
Nearby, another mountain sculpture is taking shape as Chief Crazy Horse emerges from the granite. Conceived on a vast scale, the sculpture is not on the mountain — it is the mountain. With entirely private funding, the sheer magnitude of work required and the vagaries of weather, it’s no surprise that a completion date is unknown. Still, slowly but surely, the face of the Lakota chief, his outstretched arm, and the head and neck of his horse are taking shape.
Further north, the old frontier town of Deadwood still thrives on the legends and ghosts of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Poker Alice. At Saloon No. 10, you can view historical Western and mining camp artifacts spanning more than 100 years. Both Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are buried in historic Mount Moriah Cemetery, which overlooks the town.