Black Hills, South Dakota – Part IV

Iron Mountain Road & Needles Highway

A trip to the Black Hills is not complete unless visitors drive the Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway. Designed for motorists to slow down and enjoy the view of the hills and the fresh pine scent of the forest, the 17-mile Iron Mountain Road, constructed in 1933, contains 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 pigtails, 3 tunnels, and 2 splits. The slow pace kept my motion sickness at bay as the road corkscrewed in a 360-degree fashion through the pigtails and the 180-degree switchbacks.

Below is one of the pigtails. Note the asphalt below the bridge and how the road continues through the tunnel.

One of Three Pigtails

The tunnels were so tight I thought for sure we’d scrape the truck on the granite walls.

One of Three Tunnels

Stopping at the turnouts to catch a glimpse of the presidents or peer out at the expanse of forest is a requirement.

Mount Rushmore Seen From Iron Mountain Road
View From One of The Stops, With People Standing on the Foreground Rock

At one stop, we saw the driver of this motorhome considering whether to stuff his rig through the tunnel.

“Should We Try It?” “Sure, Dad. It Will Fit.” “I Don’t Know.”

The motorcyclists made encouraging comments, but the RV started a slow backup process around the curves he had just navigated.

Motorcyclists We Met At Tunnel

One of the motorcyclists said the motorhome found a place to turn around a few yards down the road. I guess the driver of the RV ignored the cannot-miss signs that warned against oversized vehicles, or maybe he didn’t realize how big his unit really was.

Needles Highway came next, another beautiful drive through the green forest, granite spires, and one-way tunnels, on a curvy narrow road.

View of Meadow With Mount Rushmore Rising Behind the Forest
I See A Dragon’s Back. What About You?
Climbers Creep Up Toward the Mouth of This Creature

The Needles Eye is a popular place for taking photos. There are a few parking spots, but they fill up fast during busy times.


Sylvan Lake

After winding our way through the scenic roads, Sylvan Lake surprised us at the end. Ah, a perfect place to stretch our legs.

Sylvan Lake
Sylvan Lake Spillway

The lake was created by Theodore Reder when he built a dam across Sunday Gulch in 1881 and it became part of Custer State Park in 1921. It wasn’t a large lake, but very popular for fishing, swimming, paddleboards, and kayaks. Sylvan Lake Campground offers sites nearby for hike-in, tents, and small RVs and trailers between 25’ and 27’ in length. Interested in something more elegant, try Sylvan Lake Lodge where a couple can also host a wedding.

Custer State Park – Wildlife Loop

The best viewing for animals on Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park is around sunrise or sunset. We opted for another early morning to catch the animals before they hunkered down for the heat of the day. Six o’clock A.M. was slow going when watching the road for signs of deer that might bound out in front of the truck.

One of Many Deer Alongside the Road

Prairie dogs poked their heads out of their burrow or stood on their hind legs as if scouting the horizon for predators. I wondered if there was a hierarchy involved in determining which rodent lived in which neighborhood. And what about their governance structure? Who is in charge? Off to Wikipedia to learn more. I won’t go into the details. If you are interested, click here.

Prairie Dog

At one point, wild burros walked toward us on the road. In their group was one with a white coat. I don’t think I have ever seen a white burro before. Have you?

Gray Burro
White Burro

The buffalo were next. What a sight to watch them amble along a path only they knew existed, nibbling on grass as they traveled.

Herd of Buffalo

The young calves would run up toward the road and stop, look back, and scamper back to the adults. Then they’d repeat their antics, back and forth. They reminded me of our son when he was young. On our hikes, he would run ahead, run back to us, then run ahead again. He must have hiked twice as far as we did.

Young Calves Waiting for Mom and Dad

We watched the buffalo make their way across the road for about a half hour until a certain cow and bull finally made it to the other side. Then the young ones ran ahead. What a sight to watch these powerful beasts. They seemed so docile as they slowly moved forward to their destination until a couple males exerted their dominance and charged at each other. I was sure glad I was safely inside our truck.

Hey. Get Out of Here. That’s My Grass.

Not too far from the buffalo, we spotted a coyote up on a hill.

Coyote Shedding His Winter Coat

I fell in love with the Black Hills on this trip. However, there was one thing I did not care for. The helicopters.

IMG_2532The whop, whop, whop of the blades seemed to follow us everywhere and ruined the ambiance of the Black Hills experience. The aircraft flew overhead at Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, while we rode the 1880 Train, as we traveled Iron Mountain and Needles Highway, and at Sylvan Lake.

I don’t begrudge people who want to see the scenery from the air. I’m sure they gain a different perspective of the place. I only wish the helicopters could fly as quietly as an electric car. I prefer to experience nature without a side of whop, whop, whop in the air.

Next up is the final episode of our Black Hills adventure.

Safe Travels

Black Hills, South Dakota – Part III

Crazy Horse Memorial: Respected Tourist Attraction or Rip Off?

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Crazy Horse Memorial. A woman had told us it was more of a tourist trap. “Why pay for something you can see from the road?” she said. “That family is ripping people off.” It’s true, you can see the memorial from the road, but I had no idea why the family raised the hackles on the back of her neck.


Everyone else told us we had to see it. So, we paid the price of admission, $22 for both of us and only $28.00 for a car with more than two people. Those prices seemed reasonable to me.

Had we only viewed the sculpture from the road, we would have missed learning about the man behind the sculpture, how the memorial came about, and of course the American Indian artifacts and the arts and crafts in the Indian Museum of North America. And I would never have been able to zoom in close enough to capture a view of the work on the mountain.

At 87 feet and 6 inches, Crazy Horse’s face dwarfs the construction equipment and crew. Between and below the red and yellow pieces of equipment, there is a dark speck. This is the spot where two men stand on one of the slanted ledges. Zooming in further, one of the men appears to be working with what looks like a jack hammer. Looks like a dangerous task to me.


The amount of work that has and will go into this creation, astounds me. From the infrastructure consisting of roads to allow access for heavy equipment to the safety measures required for handling explosives and working on the side of the mountain, it seems an impossible feat. All of this activity gave me a glimpse into the complexities of the making of Mount Rushmore.


In 1939, Henry Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota chief, commissioned Korczak Ziolkowski to sculpt a memorial that would honor Crazy Horse, an iconic Native American who fought against the U.S. military in the Battle of Little Bighorn in June 1876.


Drawing on Monument Superimposed on Photo of Thunder Mountain


Korczak Ziolkowski began working on the project in 1947 with the first blast on June 3, 1948. In 1950, he married Ruth Ross who came to the Black Hills to work on the memorial in 1948 with a group of young volunteers. Korczak and Ruth had five girls and five boys.

What attracted the twenty-two-year-old woman from Connecticut to the Black Hills of South Dakota when the area lacked basic infrastructures? Why would she leave the comfort of her home for the wilds of the west? According to Wikipedia, Ruth first met Ziolkowski when she was thirteen. Had Ruth harbored a love for Korczak for nine years? Or did their love grow after her arrival?

When Korczak died in 1982, Ruth and her children took over the construction and many of the family members still work on the project keeping Korczak’s dream alive. The family completed Crazy Horse’s face in 1998 and work continues today.

Except for the gift shop, which is operated by a private company, the memorial, visitor complex, and all activities are conducted under Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization. The organization files an IRS Form 990 and is audited annually. No federal or state funds are used to finance the construction of the monument. The cost of construction comes mainly from contributions and admission receipts.

Included with Admission

Admission includes a return trip at night to view the laser show. For an additional fee of $4.00, visitors can take a bus tour to the base of the mountain. Or, become a Crazy Horse Story Teller for $125.00 and travel to the construction site to see the work in progress. We opted out of the bus tour and visit to the construction site. We found plenty to look at in the visitor complex which includes the sculptor’s log home, studio, bronze showroom, and the artist’s workshop. Also, there is an orientation film and a 1/34 scale model of what the finished memorial will eventually look like if it is ever completed.

Dancing and Singing Demonstration on the Patio
This Frame Shows Colors From Nature Used in Weaving 
Native American Beaded Dress


A certain amount of controversy surrounds the monument, although not discussed at the visitor center, or at least not that I saw. Of utmost concern is the amount of time the memorial has taken to construct. Since 1948, the warrior’s face is the only portion of the monument that the Ziolkowski family has completed thus far. Work is currently underway on the outstretched hand and the horse’s mane and there does not seem to be an end date for completion of the entire structure.

The second controversy is the way Ziolkowski depicted the outstretched hand in the model with a pointing finger. In his article, Mistake on the Mountain, David B. Conrad stipulates “the traditional American Indian . . . does not point with the solitary index finger.” He cites three sources as evidence that Oglala Sioux, the same tribe as Crazy Horse, would point using his thumb, not a forefinger. Perhaps Conrad’s article had the desired effect of inspiring individuals to contact the Ziolkowski family so they could make the necessary corrections.

Model of Crazy Horse Monument with Thunder Mountain in the Background

Although Korczak Ziolkowski selected Crazy Horse as the model for the monument, photographs of the man do not exist so there is no way the memorial will represent his likeness. Ruth Ziolkowski emphasized the monument is a memorial to a race of people and not to just one man.

The fourth controversy is that descendants of Crazy Horse object to the use of their ancestor. They claim Chief Henry Standing Bear had no right to ask Ziolkowski to create the monument and feel that carving up the hills as a memorial is a desecration of their Indian culture.


After reading the stories of controversy, I understood why the woman I met might not have fond feelings toward the memorial or the family. But what about the “ripping off” comment? I dusted off my CPA hat and read the 2014 IRS Form 990. Yes, family members receive compensation for work they do for the organization. However, I did not see anyone receiving compensation that was out of line for the position they held within the organization or due to the size of the Foundation compared to non-profits of similar size. In addition, several outside directors determined compensation for the more highly compensated individuals. I was also pleased to see the organization receives regular audits of its financial statements.

Black Hills Nature Gates Captured our Curiosity
Close Up View of Nature Gates

We were glad we had visited the Crazy Horse Memorial. It is so much more than the carving on the mountain. The dedication of the family to see their father’s dream come alive was inspiring, the Native American arts and crafts were interesting, and the artifacts and historical significance were thought-provoking. I believe it is best at this point that the family continues their work. The partially carved up mountain would only be an eyesore in the beautiful Black Hills if they were to abandon Korczak’s dream. In the future, I’ll be watching the slow artistic progress as it unfolds on Thunderhead Mountain.

Safe Travels

Black Hills, South Dakota – Part II

With so many items on our “things to see and do” list we sure were glad we had opted for staying eight nights in the Black Hills. I suspect most tourists come to the Black Hills to gaze upon the granite carvings at Mount Rushmore and Thunderhead Mountain and we were among those tourists.

The Todds at Mount Rushmore on the Grand View Terrace

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

We arrived at 6:00 a.m. to get a jump on the crowds (added bonus: no parking fee at that hour). For a little over an hour, we had the run of the place to ourselves except for a few couples and small family groups that had similar plans. Awe-inspiring is what came to mind as we walked the Avenue of Flags on our way to the Grand View Terrace and stared up at the granite structure that depicts George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

Avenue of the Flags

Doane Robinson is credited with conceiving the idea to create an attraction that would bring visitors to his State of South Dakota and Gutzon Borglum was chosen as the sculptor. Although Robinson initially envisioned the depiction of western heroes such as Lewis & Clark, Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill Cody, Borglum selected the four presidents he viewed as instrumental in preserving the United States and expanding its territory in the West.

Mount Rushmore

Borglum met with Doane Robinson in 1924 and 1925 Mount Rushmore was selected as the location. Construction work began in 1927. Working beside Borglum until his death in March 1941, was Borglum’s son, James Lincoln Borglum. Lincoln Borglum took on the responsibility of sculptor when his father died and congress declared the monument completed as is on October 31, 1941. The nation had to push aside artistic endeavors as it prepared for World War II.

The Presidential Trail gives visitors a close-up perspective of the memorial, like this picture of Washington through a narrow crevice in the rocks.

George Washington Seen Through a Crevice

The Presidential Trail is 0.6 miles long and contains 422 steps. A boardwalk with railings prevents visitors from straying from the trail.

Stairs along the Boardwalk
View of the Black Hills from the Presidential Trail

The amphitheater provides visitors with a different perspective of the memorial by illuminating it each night. We didn’t take advantage of the night-time event but we talked with other people who did and they were glad for the experience.

Amphitheater viewed from the Presidential Trail

Poor Teddy was in shadow most of the time we were at the memorial, but I did manage this close up that shows how the sculptor depicted the president’s glasses.

Teddy Roosevelt in Shadow

Abraham’s close up shows how catch-lights were created to bring out the eyes.

Abraham’s Close Up


One of the tasks of the National Park Service and the Mount Rushmore Society is to preserve the memorial from damage. As with any mountain, wind, snow, rain, heat and cold can cause erosion and change the shape of any stone. A monitoring system, attached to various sections of the memorial, records the air and surface temperature and detects movement of less than 0.0001 inches. Workers seal cracks with silicone and sprinkle granite dust to camouflage any repairs. The diligence to preservation should maintain the structure in good condition for generations.

We visited Mount Rushmore a few days later, paying the $5.00 parking fee ($10.00 for non-seniors) and contending with the crowds. We wanted to see what the visitor center had to offer and I had to get my National Park Passport stamped. Although the crowds were not too difficult to navigate, I much preferred our visit in the early morning when we didn’t have to vie for position to take photos.

Grand View Terrace


To learn more about Mount Rushmore, including park details and history of the monument, visit the Mount Rushmore National Park website.

Next up? Crazy Horse Memorial.

Safe Travels

Black Hills, South Dakota – Part I

Welcome to the Black Hills of South Dakota, home to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments and so much more.

Yeah! We Made it to the Black Hills.

We selected Buffalo Ridge Camp Resort in Custer, South Dakota, our base camp in the Southern Hills for eight nights starting on June 18, 2017. We never know what we are getting when we make reservations. As we drove up a small hill on the gravel road, I wasn’t sure we had chosen wisely. All doubts flew away, however, when we crested the hill to see the large expanse of grassy knolls and RVs tucked up under a stand of large pines. Buffalo Ridge is also a great place for tent campers with cabana/shelters, picnic tables, fire rings, and plenty of grass between sites.

I couldn’t resist including this sunrise at Buffalo Ridge.

Sunrise at Buffalo Ridge Camp Resort

Hill City

Hill City, established in 1876, is a cute little town with restaurants, shops, art galleries and of course a Harley Davidson store.

Restaurant in Hill City
Hill City Harley Davidson 

Once a thriving tin mining town, industries that support the city today include timber, tourism, and telecommunications. The art scene is also on the rise in the town, like this sculpture by John Lopez.

John Lopez Horse Sculpture

How many objects can you identify in the sculpture?

The Alpine Inn served up a delicious French dip with fruit on the side and we didn’t even have to wait. We had heard that since the restaurant does not take reservations, the lines could grow long. Oh, and you can leave your credit card at home, they only accept cash and checks.

Get Your Name on the List Early to Avoid Long Waits at the Alpine Inn

With all of the usual types of gift and souvenir shops, one store stood out. Art Forms Gallery, a co-op of twenty Black Hill artists offer a great variety of paintings, jewelry, woodwork, hand woven scarves, photography art books, and other artistic items for sale. It was nice to have a selection of goods made by local artists to browse through.

The 1880 Train

The Black Hills Central Railroad and the 1880 Train is what drew us to Hill City. We were too late to ride the train the first day we visited, so we returned a few days later. The steam locomotive, which takes three hours to prepare, pulls the train up and down 4% to 6% grades to Keystone over the course of the two-hour twenty-mile round trip.

Locomotive Spewing Steam
Engineer Patiently Waiting for Locomotive to Warm Up
Water Tower Used to Refill Locomotive

The Black Hills Central Railroad does a fantastic job renovating the cars and locomotives. Prefer a cushy seat? Grab a leather one in one of the enclosed cars. All of the windows open and close easily.

The Seat Backs Flip From One Side to the Next. No Matter the Direction, Riders Face Forward.

We saw Tin Mill Hill, Black Elk Peak, Elkhorn Mountain, and Old Baldy Mountain from the windows of the train cars among the farms, abandoned properties, and deer grazing in the fields. Here is a sampling of sights seen on the train ride from Hill City to Keystone.

Bambi in the Grass
Cold Storage Built Into Hill
One of the Many Curves on the Route
Farm Seen From Train
Abandoned Buildings
Wooden Cabin
Did the Boulder Fall on the Building or Was the Building Built Under the Boulder?
Another Abandoned Building


We got off the train to browse the shops selling T-shirts, hats, Native American art, leather goods, jewelry, and candy and check out which restaurant might satisfy us for lunch.

Motorcyclists are Common in the Black Hills
The Keystone Mercantile Sells Just About Everything

The Ruby House looked like a good bet and when I crossed the threshold, I thought time had shifted to the 1880s. The gold and red velvet wallpaper lining the walls, brass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and the paintings of cowboys, Indians, and portraits of people in their latest fashions of the day hung on the walls created an immersive atmosphere.

Ruby House Restaurant a Great Place to Eat.
Ruby House Restaurant Interior

After exploring the stores and filling our bellies, we arrived early at the train depot and watched the locomotive pull into the station.

Train Arriving At Keystone Depot

Be sure to sit on the opposite side of the train when returning to Hill City so you can see what you missed on the way to Keystone.

Stay tuned for future posts which will detail Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Needles Highway, and other sights.

Safe Travels