4. Buffalo Gap National Grassland
Where the gravel ends at the town of Scenic, the drive turns onto Rte. 44 and heads northwestward across a sprawling sea of mixed prairie grasses. Early in the 20th century, settlers flocked to this part of the plains to become ranchers, only to see their hopes dashed either by drought or by the Great Depression, when homestead after homestead was abandoned.
Today, Buffalo Gap — one of three national grasslands in South Dakota — embraces more than a half-million acres of grassland restored to its original lushness. Though it may be tempting to rush through this wide, wind-blown expanse, slow down to savor one of North America’s most striking landscapes.
5. Rapid City
Today it’s the state’s second-largest population center, but Rapid City nearly disappeared before it had even begun. The city planners who founded the town in 1876 as a supply depot for the Hills’ prosperous goldfields were dismayed to discover that the lure of mineral riches a few miles farther on was so great that no one wanted to stop here. Luckily, residents soon persuaded the railroad to build a line through town, and nearly overnight Rapid City’s future was assured.
For a bird’s-eye view of the town and a glimpse of the Black Hills beyond, take a quick jaunt up Skyline Drive, cresting the hill that bisects the town.
Buildings in the old commercial district have been restored, and many street corners feature life-sized bronze statues of U.S. presidents. West Boulevard Historic District includes stately Queen Anne-and Colonial-style homes. North of Historic Downtown, on New York Street between Fifth Street and E. North Street, visit the Journey Museum — filled with exhibits that tell the story of the western Great Plains.
6. Black Hills National Forest
On Rte. 79, jog south to the town of Hermosa and then west on Rte. 40. The drive rises gently through foothills, then begins a sharper climb into the pines that make up Black Hills National Forest. Though not the most imposing mountains in America, the Black Hills are ancient, thrust upward from the plains some 60 million years ago, just as the dinosaurs exited the stage.
7. Mt. Rushmore National Memorial
Like a magnificent mirage, the four presidential faces that gaze out from Mt. Rushmore — Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln — first peek through the trees just south of Keystone. It isn’t until you reach the site itself and stand on the viewing terrace 1,400 feet away that the full dimensions of this man-made marvel hit home. Each face, carved with consummate craftsmanship, measures a full 60 feet from brow to chin. The eyes alone are masterpieces: granite columns inside each pupil catch the light in such a way that they seem to twinkle.
Credit for this triumph of artistry and engineering belongs to Gutzon Borglum, an Idaho-born sculptor. Two South Dakotans, Doane Robinson and Peter Norbeck, shared his vision and gained permission from the federal government, authorization from the state legislature, and the donations of citizens to match federal funds for the million-dollar project. Beginning in 1927, Borglum and his crew of unemployed miners — who became accomplished during the succeeding years — blasted, drilled, and hammered away, removing 800 million tons of rock from the granite mountainside.
Tragically, Borglum himself did not live to see his vision fully realized. His plan was to carve each of the four presidents to the waist, but in March 1941, after 14 years of labor, the sculptor died suddenly. Borglum’s son took over and declared the project completed later that year. Even so, Mt. Rushmore remains one of America’s most durable icons. Borglum chose his medium well; the granite of the sculpture erodes, on average, less than an inch every 10,000 years, and his creation will stand for ages to come.