This time he is off to Rapid City SD….where man is not meant to exist…here is his informal review:

Just got back from a short trip to the beautiful Black Hills. Disclaimer: I went to high school up there(back in the early Cretaceous) so I am unabashedly a fan of the sights, the people, the things to do. I just want to be up front with the background. Arrived after lunch to the efficiently cozy Rapid City Regional Airport and called the car rental company to come pick us up. On our way in to the rental company to sign the necessary paperwork, I was surprised at how much Rapid City has grown. It is the second largest city in So. Dakota and now has over 80,000 people. The city is spread out and because of the geography, doesn’t look half that size. A large ridge of tall hills separates the city into an east/west breakdown. I also noticed the altitude, as it will take a few days to get acclimated. Rapid still has a small “home town” feel to it. It turns out the owner of the rental car company was the son of an old family friend, so while filling out the necessary paperwork we talked family and friends. Soon we were on our way up to Mount Rushmore and environs, a drive of less than 30 min, unless you stop at any of the several fun tourist attractions along the way. This day, however, we were on a schedule, so no stops, just enjoying the rising terrain and the dark trees of the National Forest until we reached the parking area for the monument. While having a variety of trees, depending on the terrain, the most prominent species is the Black Hills spruce, an evergreen, pine-tree that is unique to the area. It’s needles are a very dark green, so from a distance the hills look black, hence , the name. These “hills” are well over 5000 feet in altitude, Harney Peak, the tallest is over 7000 feet high, the highest peak between the Rockies and Europe. They rise from the surrounding plain like a bulls eye. There is an outer ring of mostly sandstone formations, bright red or grey/yellow, and an inner ring of metamorphic rocks, like granite (from which Rushmore is carved) with lots of mica and quartz. Gold (with some silver, etc) has been mined from the hills for over 100 years. General Custer (yes, that Custer) led the first expedition to the hills in 1874 and found gold.
Mount Rushmore itself is incredibly impressive. The pictures and video’s just cannot do justice to the size of the monument. A number of years ago, the Park Service removed most of the original 1930’s CCC buildings, which were the beautiful, “national park” style architecture, mostly wood and stone, and replaced them with square, squat, gray ‘granite-looking” buildings that were supposed to meld with the mountain. I am not a fan. However, as you walk through the entryway to the monument, you pass a gallery of all 50 states’ flags. That is well-done. One of the additional changes with the reconstructed buildings was a “Presidential Pathway” that leads from the main gallery viewing area down to the base of the mountain, something that was never possible before. It makes for some up-close and different angles for pictures of the four presidents. I have heard that with current erosion levels, the faces will still be mostly visible over 2000 years from now. This being the Wed before Memorial Day weekend, the traditional kick-off to tourist season, the monument was not crowded at all. While walking the path, we were able to get some excellent photos of two large mountain goats we had spotted grazing at the foot of the mountain. While mountain goats are not unusual in the Hills, I had never before seen them at Rushmore. They were unconcerned that the tourists were acting like paparazzi 40 feet away. After a visit to the extensive gift shop, we headed back into Rapid City, to meet an old friend, Bruce and his wife that we were staying with this trip. His house was on the far west of the city, overlooking a beautiful canyon and the Hills beyond. There were only four other houses to be seen for miles. Soothing and peaceful.
The next day we were off to the Badlands, my favorite site in the area. They are about 45 min east of the Hills and look like a moonscape, caused by wind and water erosion. Starkly beautiful peaks with teeth-sharp serrated edges mixed with little round mounds of colored dirt the size of haystacks. Tiny ‘hoodoo’s” and flat-as-a board table-top mesas with tall prairie grass growing like a bad haircut. My friend Bruce drove and we picked a route neither of us had taken before, a “back-way” through parts of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and along some well-maintained gravel roads. I was initially concerned, as Bruce has gotten us stuck numerous times in the past in mud, snow, ice, washed-out roads, etc. It is almost a tradition. This time however, the roads were in good shape and we saw wildlife not often seen. Free roaming Buffalo, pronghorn antelope, deer, prairie dogs, golden eagles, chipmonks, were all seen that day. Well worth the drive. After leaving the Badlands we proceeded to world-famous Wall Drug. A tourist-attraction extraordinaire, it must be seen to be believed. Plan on several hours, however. Everything from a great café (coffee is still only 5 cents a cup) with buffalo burgers and buffalo hotdogs, to T-shirts, to tacky tourist souvenirs and bumper stickers, to an incredible bookstore specializing in Western writers and themes, great Western Art for sale, and Native American jewelry and crafts, including, of course, Black Hills Gold, with it’s distinctive red and yellow colors. A true American Icon of tourism. From there we drove back interstate 90 through the grass-covered rolling prairie to the hills on the main road to Mt Rushmore, where we stopped at a couple of small wineries including The Prairie Berry. After tasting several unique wines, we picked a couple of favorites to take back for the evening’s dinner. There is something very relaxing about dinner on the back porch, watching the sun go down over the mountains, the light setting the clouds and the peaks as pale gold as the chilled wine we toasted it with.
Friday, we headed into the northern Hills. Higher in elevation, with steeper roads, deeper canyons alongside clear-running creeks. The northern hills always get more rain and deeper, more frequent snow. 10 days earlier they had an 18 inch snowfall. Taking smaller gravel roads we visited several small former mining towns. Bruce, being a long-time history buff of the area was currently researching the various railroads that ran through. We followed old rail beds and saw ghost towns, and empty meadows where once locomotives hissed and steamed their way, carrying gold, timber and tourists. We stopped for lunch at The Moonshine Gulch Saloon, in the town of Rochford, population 26. The Saloon is a popular spot with the bikers that come up from Sturgis for the annual Rally. It is a true fascinating dive. On Saturday nights, musicians from all over the hills show up for a jam session on the front porch. I would have loved to sit in. Ask them about the flying monkeys….after lunch we drove down Spearfish Canyon to visit several of the waterfalls and just enjoy the sheer cream and black limestone cliffs with birch, aspen, lodge pole pine and of course, black hills spruce trees. We saw eagles soaring high over the canyon with several other bird species and wild turkeys. We finally arrived at Deadwood. This small historic town has seen a major change in its fortunes since South Dakota approved casino gambling. A dozen or more small-stakes casinos/bars are now mixed in with the t-shirt and souvenir shops on the main street. The world-famous Homestake Mine has finally closed, leaving tourism as the only major employer in town. We visited several places both outside of town and in town, catching a “Wild-West Shootout” on the way, a recreation of one of the many gunfights that occurred in this wild town back in the 1880’s. We saw the original, No 10 Saloon, where Wild Bill Hickok was killed from behind while playing cards, and we even played blackjack ($2 table) in the “new” No 10 Saloon, with sawdust on the floor and dealers in string ties. I was up about ten bucks when we left. We ate at one of the buffets in town, crab legs and prime rib. The prime rib was very good and I let the rest of the group enjoy the crab legs.
For our final day in the hills, we drove down to the edges of beautiful Custer State park, down parts of Iron Mountain road, where along some of the curves and tunnels you can see glimpses of the presidents on Mt Rushmore. We stopped at several overlooks on The Needles Highway to admire the granite formations, worn over the millennia to spires and, well, needles. From there we went to the Crazy Horse Memorial. This site was the dream of one man, to carve from a mountain, a sculpture of the famous Sioux warrior chief Crazy Horse. If ever finished in size it will dwarf the carvings on Mt Rushmore. The pace is exceedingly slow. While the original sculpturist has passed away, the family continues the work. The plans are to house a Native American school, hospital, cultural center, and more. The artist’s studio was open with numerous artwork and a gift shop, restaurant, and building where handcrafted native American items could be purchased. I had not seen it in over 20 years, and it was good to see that the face of Crazy Horse had been mostly finished, but little else has been done. On the way back we stopped in the small town of Keystone, a great tourist town for shopping. We hit every shop in town, purchasing some Black Hills gold and, of all things, a Hawaiian shirt for me for under 5 bucks. While the ice cream looked good, we bought some delicious chocolate-mint fudge at a candy factory.
The next morning we slept late, packed, and had one final adventure. Bruce decided to take us on a tour of his property. Driving up and down steep meadows and canyons in his old pickup, bouncing up and down on the rough track like a balloon on a string. We were crossing from one meadow to another when, yep, we got stuck up to the hubcaps in the soft dirt, now mud from rains they had had before we arrived. We had to hike close to a mile up the steep hill back to the house. Like I said earlier—with Bruce, it’s a tradition. After some oxygen recovery, we said goodbye to our very gracious hosts and friends and headed out to the airport and home. To summarize: It was great to get back to area, seeing my old “haunts”, visiting old and dear friends. The Black Hills are as beautiful as ever, with friendly people, enough things to do and see for 7+ days (Devils Tower is a little over an hour away), good food, reasonable prices, and great weather. While one day it was 84, most days were in the 70’s and humidity was roughly 20%. For us Texans that was ahhhhh-some. I can’t wait to get back!

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