Chiseled in granite high on a pine-clad cliff in South Dakota's fabled Black Hills are the portraits of four of America's greatest leaders. Since 1941, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt have gazed quietly across the Great Plains and a land they did so much to mold.
Most of the 2.7 million people who visit each year spend an hour or so at the memorial, maybe eating a sandwich, then moving on to Yellowstone National Park or some other "major" destination. But those with the time and inclination will discover much to enjoy at Mount Rushmore and the other attractions of the Black Hills. Within an hour's drive, you will find not only Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, but also Custer State Park and the Crazy Horse Memorial -- a work in progress that will be far larger than Mount Rushmore. And if you are willing to get off the beaten path -- something that relatively few visitors do -- you will find a backcountry dotted with trails through the region's pine forests, a nearly untrammeled wilderness where you can escape the crowds for days, or perhaps just an hour. As a bonus, you are almost certain to view a variety of wildlife matched in few places in the United States.
Geologists predict the presidents will continue their earthly vigil at Mount Rushmore National Memorial for many centuries, as they erode less than 1 inch every 10,000 years.
As the "crown jewel" of South Dakota's state park system, Custer State Park offers 71,000 acres of prime Black Hills real estate, the largest and most diverse population of wildlife, the best accommodations and facilities, and the most memorable natural resources of any park in the state.
Located east of the town of Custer, the park is home to four lodges, four fishing lakes, wildlife loops, campgrounds, scenic drives, and granite spires so impressive that they make you want to get out of the car and walk the forest floor. With rolling meadows and foothills, pine forests, and the giant fingerlike granite spires of the Needles, Custer State Park is a must on any Black Hills itinerary.
Even after more than 100 years since the establishment of the park, there is still something to discover in the darkened depths of Wind Cave National Park. Although the cave formations here are generally not as ornate as those in some of the West's other caves, such as Carlsbad Cavern, Wind Cave has its share of fairyland-style decorations, including popcorn, shimmering needle-shaped crystals, and an abundance of formations called "boxwork," which sometimes looks like fine lace. With more than 132 miles of mapped passageway, Wind Cave is one of the longest caves in the world. And with each succeeding expedition, the interconnecting network of known passages continues to grow, sometimes by a few paces, other times by several hundred feet. Barometric wind studies estimate that only 5% of the total cave has been discovered.
But there's a great deal more to Wind Cave than just its geological wonders. Aboveground, 28,295 acres of rolling prairie and ponderosa pine forests are ablaze with wildflowers and teeming with wildlife. Bison and pronghorn antelope graze on the park's lush grasslands, while prairie dogs watch from the relative safety of their "towns." In the fall, elk can be heard "bugling" throughout the confines of the park, and overhead, hawks, eagles, and vultures float on the thermal currents that rise from the rocky ridges of the Black Hills.
In the limestone labyrinth that rests below the Black Hills, Jewel Cave National Monument offers a mysterious, mazelike network of caverns and passageways. It is filled with delicate speleothems (cave formations) and beautiful crystal-like paths that have yet to be fully explored.
Crazy Horse Memorial: the "fifth face"
Known by locals as the "Fifth Face" in the Black Hills, the sculpture of the legendary Lakota Sioux Chief Crazy Horse began with the dedication of the work on June 3, 1948. More than a half-century later, work continues on what is expected to be the world's largest sculpture. The chief's nine-story-high face has been completed, and work has begun on carving the 22-story-high horse's head.
Begun by the late sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (pronounced Jewel-cuff-ski), and carried on by his widow, sons, and daughters, the mountain sculpture memorial is dedicated to all American Indians.
"My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too," Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote Ziolkowski in 1939, inviting him to create the mountain memorial. Seven years later, the sculptor agreed and began carving the colossal work.
When the sculpture is completed, Crazy Horse will sit astride his mount, pointing over his stallion's head to the sacred Black Hills. So large is the sculpture (563 ft. high) that all four presidents on Mount Rushmore would fit in Crazy Horse's head.
Visitors driving by the site on U.S. 16/385, 5 miles north of the town of Custer, might hear dynamite blasts, a surefire signal that work on the mountain carving is progressing. When night blasts are detonated, they tend to be among the most impressive events in the Black Hills.
In addition to viewing the carving in progress and watching an audiovisual display about the work, visitors may stop at the Indian Museum of North America at Crazy Horse, which is home to one of the most extensive collections of American Indian art and artifacts in the country. The museum's gift shop features authentic American Indian crafts.
For more information, go to www.crazyhorsememorial.org.