A ranger gestures in front of a scale plaster model sculpted by Gutzon Borglum as a guide to workers on Mount Rushmore.

RealImaginaryWest Day 6 – The Black Hills, Mount Rushmore & Wind Cave

The weather held up really well, with just a little rain falling on us south of Rapid City as we drove from Badlands National Park to lunch in Keystone. We visited Mount Rushmore and got down to Wind Cave National Park just in time to catch the Natural Entrance Tour. Then we drove north into magnificent Custer State Park—WOW!—and finally made our way to our motel in Rapid City via the spectacular Iron Mountain Road.

Dreaming of the Old West

After a positively uneventful and peaceful night in Cedar Pass Campground at Badlands National Park, Becky and I woke up refreshed, and packed up our tent bound for the Black Hills. Becky cooked eggs in a tiny little portable stove she bought that resembles more of what a caterer uses to keep food warm than an actual stove. This was what we had to use to cook at Badlands, since there were no campfires allowed due to the risk of prairie fires. It took a while to cook a single egg, but it was effective.

After seeing I-90 and the Badlands Loop Road, I thought it would be best to drive to Rapid City via SD-44 so we could see the other side of the Badlands. Few likely see this area, since it is a much less popular part of the park. This was a great drive, which starts by going through the tiny little town of Interior, then passing through the town of Scenic, and finally to South Dakota’s second-largest city, Rapid City.

SD-44 straggles the border between Badlands National Park and Buffalo Gap National Grassland as it stretches West toward Scenic and Rapid City.

Black-footed ferrets, once extinct in South Dakota, prey almost exclusively on prairie dogs for food. They were reintroduced to the wild here in the 1990s, and as a result prairie dogs are protected in Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

Most of the way was either within Badlands National Park or Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The road runs alongside an abandoned railroad line where small wooden trestles still cross creeks, just without the rails. There were also plenty of pulloffs where you could drive into the grassland on dirt roads. Signs said that this was a management area for the black-footed ferret, which was thought extinct in the late 1970s. A few years later they were spotted again in Wyoming, and eventually reintroduced in areas such as this one. For the majority of the route we could see badlands going on for miles and miles and miles.

The railroad line crossing all of the creeks just a few feet above was odd to me. The fact that the creeks had grass all the way down to the water along their entire banks was strange to me too. Back East, the railroads are built far above floodplains, and there are trees and underbrush all around creeks and rivers, and pretty much just mud on the dropoff into the creek. The rolling hills and twisting and turning railroad bed conjured up all sorts of westerns and cartoons I’d seen all my life with scenery like this. When we entered into Black Hills country, it especially felt like I was living in an old western movie, except that technology and the 20th Century had happened and it was a little different now. It was strikingly beautiful country, and a lot of the things I’d seen in stuff set in the Old West started to make sense. I could imagine riding a galloping horse through this valley and on up into Rapid City with the rolling prairie on either side of me, and with the first pines appearing in the Black Hills.

Writing the Itinerary As We Go…

Now today had me a bit nervous…up to this point, we had all of our accommodations planned and/or reserved well before we left, except for the motel in Wisconsin. I had also managed to score three nights worth of campsites in Yellowstone online the day we left, and after that nothing was reservable anyway. The one and only night I hadn’t planned out was tonight…I figured on getting a campground as close as possible to Mount Rushmore. I thought it would be good to be able to capture it at sunrise in case sunset didn’t work out, plus it would eliminate any extra driving at the end of the night and hopefully we’d be able to relax. Unfortunately, there were zillions of campgrounds in the area and I had no opportunity to research many of them. The ones I did check were all super-expensive, as in might-as-well-get-a-motel expensive.

When we got cell service back again and I could check the forecast, the potential rain and the possibility of having another repeat of DeSmet weather settled it! I Googled around and found a motel—the M Star Rapid City. It was the cheapest thing I could get, and it was close to I-90, so I jumped on it. That was settled!

Now it was time to decide which destination to hit first…there were two on our itinerary. I’d originally planned on going to Wind Cave National Park first thing, then heading to Mount Rushmore by way of the Iron Mountain Road and seeing Rushmore closer to sunset. This would give me the opportunity to photograph the sculpture both in the Golden Hour and after dark when it’s all lit up. It was still partly to mostly cloudy, but the forecast called for overcast and possibly rain in the evening. This significantly reduced the probability of getting any interesting shadows or blue sky—and it shouldn’t matter what the weather outside is to tour inside a cave—so we elected to hit Rushmore first after we grabbed lunch.

We got a bit of rain between Rapid City and Keystone. I’d never seen a freeway interchange with wood-framed overpasses like this one at the junction of US-16 and US-16A!

The drive out of Rapid City and deep into the Black Hills was peppered with many and varied tourist traps. Several were totally designed to grab an eight-year-old’s attention so that they would pressure their parents to visit. I still have to admit, a few were tempting to check out.

Right before Mount Rushmore, you go through the town of Keystone, which seemed to have more hotels than residents. Again, there were many and varied tourist attractions, several of which were themed around the presidents and their history. We stopped at the Grizzly Creek Restaurant to try their burgers. I went for the bourbon burger and Becky had the buffalo burger. They were tasty and hearty, but not remarkable for the price. They have ten beers on tap, two or three of which were the standard Miller and Budweiser choices, while the rest were all local microbrews. We still had a lot ahead of us for the day, so I decided not to have anything after I tasted a sample of the only beer that really sounded good to me—which was a wheat beer that tasted too hoppy for my liking.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The clouds were just beginning to subside as we caught our first sight of Mount Rushmore from SD-244.

Mount Rushmore was a busy place, probably the busiest we’d seen so far on this trip. It was nowhere near congested though, especially compared with just about any of the major tourist attractions in California. As you drive up on SD-244 to the monument, you actually catch your first site of it, which is pretty striking. At the entrance are ticket gates where you have to pay to park in the massive deck they built back in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the Annual Pass we just bought at Badlands doesn’t apply here, as a separate organization operates the parking deck. Finding parking was not too difficult, and neither was making our way up to the monument.

Mount Rushmore towers over the grand entrance to the memorial from the parking decks.

The Avenue of Flags, flying all 50 state flags

I’m not sure what all has been added and when, but it appeared that the visitor information center and the gift shop, as well as the Avenue of Flags and the amphitheater it lead to were all built in the last two decades. None of the areas seemed crowded though, save for the gift shop, which Becky said was just wall to wall people.

The entire monument really is built and designed to be a tribute to the founding of the United States of America and the history of the country and its people. The walkway between the visitor center and gift shop to the amphitheater has the flags of each state, with the name of the state and its official year of admission to the union engraved on it. Almost everything except the walkway was made of granite, which really looked good with the ponderosa pines all around. At the top of the amphitheater I took a few minutes to shoot a high resolution panorama that will hopefully stitch nicely.

Here’s a scaled-down version of my stitched panorama! Check out Mount Rushmore in super high-resolution.

Profile view of George Washington from a spur on the Presidential Trail

Since I’m not one to just visit a place like this, look at it, take a picture, and leave, we took the Presidential Trail that leads from the top of the amphitheater and up close to the sculpture. There are some very cool angles along the trail, including a profile view where you can look between two rocks and up to George Washington.

The entire trail is railed off and most of it is a boardwalk that looks to have been installed within the last ten or twenty years. Judging by the security cameras dotting the place and the number of “RESTRICTED AREA” markers off of the boardwalk, I’d guess it was installed after 9/11 to prevent any vandalism or attacks on the monument.

A bust of Gutzon Borglum created by his son, Lincoln Borglum, who also oversaw the final months of construction after his father’s death in 1941.

Mount Rushmore was created by Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum, his son, Lincoln, and 400 other workers from 1927 to 1941. The idea of a sculpture in the Black Hills was conceived of by historian Doane Robinson in 1923 to—you guessed it—draw tourism to South Dakota. Borglum made several changes to Robinson’s ideas, including the idea of it being a big national memorial and which four presidents would be included. In the end, it all worked—since Mount Rushmore sees over two million visitors each year.

On one end of the Presidential Trail you can visit the sculptors house and see one of the giant Ingersol-Rand air compressors that powered the jackhammers used to chisel the mountain. In the sculptors house there is the original prototype of what the mountain was supposed to look like had the sculpture been completed. I never realized the original plan was to depict the four presidents from head to waist, and not just the heads alone! Apparently congress cut funding short, likely for the war effort. Plus Borglum himself died in April of 1941. A few months later, work was concluded, with the completed top of the sculpture considered good enough for government work.

A ranger explains how workers used this smaller plaster sculpture as a reference to sculpt the mountain. Gutzon Borglum created it to scale so that his men could climb up on ladders to study and feel it—to understand how they should use their jackhammers and dynamite to duplicate it on the monument.

Wind Cave National Park

The scenery above Wind Cave is also spectacular!

After departing Mount Rushmore, we headed south to Wind Cave National Park via Custer. Custer was another classic western tourist town with rustic shops, motels, and hotels, but they looked much older than the ones in Keystone. A lot more people lived here too. We were trying to keep our day moving in order to have time for a tour at Wind Cave and a drive down the Iron Mountain Road before sundown. Therefore we took the most expeditious route, which was US-16 and US-385. This route passes through less rugged sections of the Black Hills, but it did allow us to catch a glimpse of the Crazy Horse Memorial from the road. I was unfortunately unable to get a good shot of it since it was on the wrong side of the car and the weather was too hazy.

As we first arrived at Wind Cave National Park, I noticed another prairie dog town, so Becky pulled off and we watched and photographed them. They really do sound like squeak toys!

Prairie dogs alert the whole town when dangerous humans are present!

Prairie Dog Movie Posters

They may look like plain little prairie dogs, but they’ll be HUGE in three upcoming films!


You can fight city hall. The inspiring true story of two prairie dogs who stop a mayor’s squirrelly plans and save their town.

Dogs of the Prairie

Two underground spies. One mission to dig up the truth.


Two dropouts who just want to get out of the hole for once in their life.

The drama. The action. The laughs.
Opening next summer at a theater near you!

We then proceeded to the visitor center, which was rather quiet, as it must have been winding down for the day. We got there just in time to get tickets for the 5 o’clock Natural Entrance Tour, and we got Ranger Mora for our tour guide.

Our first stop was down two flights of stairs and out to a tour shelter. There, Ranger Mora got to know everyone on the tour a bit and explained a few details we should know before we got started. When we said we were from the East, she asked if we’d been in any caves where we might have possibly contacted anything with white nose syndrome. This very nasty fungus is killing bats right and left in the Eastern states. Since we weren’t aware of having been in any caves with our clothes or shoes, we didn’t have to go back and disinfect. It was nice to find out that white nose hadn’t completely spread across the country.

Ranger Mora shares the story of the Wind Cave’s natural entrance…which is the small hole she is standing next to! It’s incredible to think of how early cave explorers squeezed into the world below!

After introductions, we proceeded down a path, still on the surface to a rocky patch with a hole just barely big enough to fit an adult through. Before we even got close to the hole, even at 10-20 feet away, you could feel a strong breeze from the hole hitting you as if a giant Dyson fan were blowing air at you! Ranger Mora explained that this was the only opening into Wind Cave for centuries, and that the Sioux believed it to be a sacred place where they emerged from the underworld. So no Sioux ever entered the cave…but early explorers in the late 1800s did all enter through this hole. The wind occurs due to air pressure changes, where the cave breathes in air as high pressure moves through, and breathes wind out as low pressure moves in. Since fast moving storms are common in Western South Dakota, the cave breathes quite a bit.

Our tour group gathers around Ranger Mora in front of one of many passageways in Wind Cave.

Becky and I have been to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which is the longest cave system in the world. Wind Cave is currently the sixth-longest at 140 miles of explored passages, but it is a three-dimensional maze cave—with passages connecting in every direction, even up and down—with the highest passage density of any cave in the world!

Thinking Inside the Boxwork

Boxwork on the ceiling of Wind Cave

Wind Cave has another unique major feature called boxwork. These are thought to be the filling between cracks in the cave rock that were left behind when chemical compounds in the water washed away the rocks that they filled, leaving only the “boxes” behind. Wind Cave features 95% of the world’s discovered cave boxwork, and you literally see the stuff everywhere down here. Along with boxwork, the cave also features a lot of frostwork and popcorn. Wind Cave, like Mammoth Cave, is formed of limestone—so some of the features are similar, but this still is a very different cave with its multitude of passages and boxwork.

Looking up at a ceiling covered with boxwork

Ranger Mora told us the story of Alvin McDonald, whose family started developing the cave for tourism in the 1890s. Alvin was only a teenager and fell in love with the cave, often exploring alone by candlelight! She told us that he would give tours that sometimes lasted over 8 hours. He was so enthralled with exploring the cave that sometimes he would go off on his own while giving a tour to paying customers—he was so absent-minded that he once forgot that he left a group inside the cave until the next morning, when he realized he needed to go back to get them out!

The cave now is very comfortably set up for tours. When entering and exiting the cave, airlocks prevent too much airflow through any but the natural openings. While there were many many steps on our tour, leading to being at least 175 feet underground, there is an elevator that leads out and right back up to the visitor center. Electric lighting illuminates the pathways and stairways, as well as many of the cool formations and upward passageways in the cave.

Another big difference I noticed about Wind Cave is its lack of stalactites and stalagmites. Most of the passages and rooms are rather small, and there aren’t any big flows of water, or lakes or rivers that we were made aware of—so perhaps that has something to do with why we didn’t really see any of the incredible formations we’ve seen in Mammoth Cave and some of the other caves we’ve been in. They didn’t talk much about sinkholes either, so maybe there’s a layer of more erosion-proof rock above the limestone that prevents them from being as common. Much of the Black Hills was exposed granite, so this could be what has kept Wind Cave from eroding. There also weren’t many creatures living in the cave. Bats don’t even like it because of the small opening and the wind.

Waiting for an elevator back to the top at the end of our tour. Alvin McDonald only wished it was so easy!

Two things Wind Cave doesn’t lack are quiet and darkness. We got to experience what early exploration of the cave would be like when Ranger Mora lit a candle and turned off the lights. Once your eyes adjusted, it became pretty easy to see, but it was still a completely different-feeling world than the one electricity revealed. Then she blew out the candle—while she stood next to the light switch mind you—and it was nothing but black and quiet. Wow.

Back On Top and the Iron Mountain Road

Back at the top before we left the visitor center, I saw something about a bison herd, and asked where it had last been seen. The ranger said that earlier in the day someone reported it near the South Entrance. I thought she meant the south entrance to the park, which was several miles in the wrong direction. By pure chance, Becky drove out the south entrance of the visitor center rather than the north entrance we came in on. I directed her onto US-385 going north, and just a few seconds later, we spotted the bison herd! They grazed serenely on a hill about 200 yards away, just hanging out a lot like the black angus cows we’d been seeing the whole trip. It’s no wonder everyone gets lulled into thinking they can just walk up and take a selfie!

The bison herd grazing on a grassy hillside near the Wind Cave National Park Visitor Center

Mule deer along the road

Pronghorn (antelope) grazing near the road

Elk grazing in the distance

As we drove north, we entered Custer State Park. All along the way there were mixes of prairies and forest, with hills and mountains sweeping up toward the sky. We saw a lot of mule deer, prairie dogs, and a few antelope out grazing. The park was not very busy with people at this time of evening, and from what I know about animals like deer, this is when they usually like to graze. We even saw male elk way off in the distance with their huge rack of antlers.

We got to the north end of Custer State Park and picked up US-16A, the Iron Mountain Road. I wish we’d had time to drive the Needles Highway (SD-87), but a friend strongly recommended 16A, so we took it…and it did not disappoint! There were several switchbacks, a few tunnels, and several pigtail bridges, where the road curves around and crosses over or under itself to negotiate a steep drop. At least two of the tunnels were designed to line up perfectly with a view of Mount Rushmore, which you could also see at the scenic overlook all the way at the top of the mountain. I had never been on a road this elaborately and painstakingly engineered…it was a true work of art!

Afterward, it was nearly dark, so we passed again through Keystone and back up the highway to Rapid City. We hit Walmart for a few quick items, and then back to our motel, the M Star Rapid City. The attendant, Dustin, was super duper awesome and helped me find out where a couple of pizza and fast food places were.

It was about 10pm already, and Becky and I still hadn’t eaten. Funds were a little tight, so we were happy with something quick and easy…I got Little Caesar’s and Becky got Taco Bell. Then we ate, plugged in a couple batteries, and fell asleep. The end of another day, ready to head out early to Devils Tower and then Cody, Wyoming the next day. This would be our longest day of driving since we left on Day 1, so we definitely needed the rest!

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