No trip to South Dakota is complete without a stop at Mt. Rushmore. It’s the reason South Dakota exists. (South Dakota – the Mt. Rushmore State J) Ok, not really, but it was one of my primary motivations for visiting SD. Our couch-surfing host was great and had about a million books on the area, guides to hikes, and maps.
Along with the Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore is probably the best known American landmark there is, so Stephanie and I were quite excited to actually lay eyes on George, Tom, Teddy and Abe in the flesh (well…in the granite). A lot had changed since I was there as a kid. In addition to the old little viewing platform, there’s now an enormous viewing platform. There’s also an amphitheater, a newer extensive visitor’s center, and, most importantly, a (very easy) hiking trail that takes you right along the bottom of the mountain for ideal viewing of all four presidents.
Of course we learned all about the motivation for and history of the monument as well as the carving process itself, but I’ll leave that to you to learn about when you visit the mountain. We even got to talk to one of the original drillers who helped shape Mt. Rushmore. He told us a bit about life on the project – what it was like to hang off the side of the mountain and work a drill for eight solid hours a day. Getting up and down the mountain in “the tool bucket” could be incredibly treacherous, but miraculously no one ever died on the project.
After ogling all morning (and getting a photo of Carlos to prove that he was there,) it was time to explore South Dakota’s famous Black Hills. We drove through Custer State park, where we were able to see more buffalo, as well as wild turkeys, not to mention beautiful scenery. As the road winds through the park there are several pigtail switchbacks where the road actually loops around over itself, sort of like a freeway on-ramp.
Right in the middle of it all is Needles Highway. This slow, twisty mountain road took us through some beautiful scenery including mixed prairie, Ponderosa Pine forests, and many rock and mountain formations. The road gets its name from the needle shaped rock formations all along the way (not from the millions of Ponderosa Pines, which might be confusing to some).
Near the highest point on this mountain road is a short but somewhat strenuous hiking trail called Cathedral Spires trail. Of course, Stephanie cannot simply drive by a good hiking trail without stopping, so we started hiking even at 4pm. It only took us about 45 minutes to reach the summit where we found ourselves in a clearing surrounded by tall, pointy rock formations – the spires – on all sides. It was incredibly beautiful all around us. We would have lingered longer, but we seem to have a knack for starting our hikes near dusk, and so we made our way back to the car before the darkness started to set in.
On our way back to Rapid City and our host’s house, we managed to catch one more glimpse of Washington to which we said goodnight.