It took us a bit longer than we planned, but we’re finally in the Rapid City, South Dakota area where we have to renew our driver’s licenses before continuing on westward. We had an unexpected maintenance issue and diverted to the Winnebago factory in Forest City, Iowa for a few days, but everything’s back to normal (except the weather). Because of the Easter Holidays, the licensing office was closed from Friday until today, so we had time to roam the area and see some of the popular tourist spots without any crowds.
Spring has been a little late to arrive in the Black Hills – there’s still snow covering the trees and meadows, and the most of the lakes are still completely frozen. Most of the tourist attractions are still closed, but you get a sense from the huge amount of motels, campgrounds, and amusements that this must be a bustling place in the summer.
We’re in a campground (in fact, we’re the ONLY ones in the campground), just down the road from Sturgis, famous for it’s annual motorcycle rally. Sturgis is a small town of just over 6000, but during the rally, it becomes not only South Dakota’s biggest city, but the crowd nearly exceeds the entire state’s population. In 2000, the rally attendance was officially listed as 754,844, and although last year’s attendance was down, it’s the largest, and nosiest, motorcycle event in the world. You can read a great article describing the event here.
No trip to the Black Hills would be complete without a visit to Mount Rushmore, and so off we went on a dreary morning with snow showers and drizzle. The drive took us through Rapid City, a busy town with lots of restaurants and shopping, and then we began a slow climb into the pine-forested Black Hills. It’s a pretty area; the hills are really mountains, not especially high but rugged and beautiful nonetheless. The memorial has been heavily renovated; now when you arrive you pay a $10 parking fee to a concessionaire, then enter multi-level parking garages, which allows the parking to be a short walk to the memorial area. A wide, granite walkway decorated with state flags leads to an overlook and below that, an area of theaters, exhibits, and a bookstore. Standing at the overlook, you can’t help but be amazed at the clarity and lifelike appearance sculpted out of the granite – no wonder it took 14 years and hundreds of workers to complete. Amazingly, although workers hung over the mountain sides in crude harnesses, climbed around on flimsy scaffolding, and used dynamite to remove 90% of the rock, no one was killed during the construction. It was a great visit – inspiring, educational, and memorable; and the weather even cooperated by clearing and providing a sunny afternoon.
On the path back to the parking garage, we came across a small group of Mountain goats. They weren’t fazed by the people walking by, and were interesting to watch. Not native to South Dakota, they were introduced in 1929 and have been residents ever since, although the numbers have declined in recent years due to an increasing mountain lion population and a reduction in habitat.
From Mount Rushmore, we decided to continue on the road to the Crazy Horse Mountain Memorial, but in just a short while came across this interesting view of the profile of George Washington. Continuing on, we came to a place on the highway where we could see the massive sculpture, which will be the largest in the world if ever completed. Started in 1948 by a man who worked on Mount Rushmore, the project is non-profit and does not receive any federal or state funding. We were running out of daylight, so opted to pass $20 entrance fee and continue on the highway back to Sturgis.
We also took the time to explore the small towns of Lead (pronounced “leed”) and Deadwood. Lead was interesting in a strange way – it looked a lot like a Western Pennsylvania mining town; small houses crowding each other on steep hillsides, narrow streets, old buildings in disrepair. It has an interesting history, but isn’t exactly a scenic place to spend time. Deadwood, on the other hand, has been largely restored and is the state’s only gaming community. The town sits in a narrow gully and it’s main street is an 1800s replica of saloons and stores, most of which house casinos. These are not the casinos of Las Vegas, most are housed in one or two storefronts and have a few dozen slot machines and a couple of poker and blackjack tables. Cramped and smoky, we didn’t spend much time here, and as you can see by the picture, it wasn’t exactly a busy night on the strip.
Hopefully the weather will clear and allow us to continue our journey, but spring in this part of the country is always unpredictable. Stop back and see how we’re doing!