Badlands and Black Hills

The unique and varied landscapes that make up this corner of South Dakota -- resonant with history and lore -- were fashioned both by the elements and by human hands.

  from The Most Scenic Drives in America

8. Custer State Park
From Rushmore, the drive pushes south toward Custer State Park on Iron Mountain Road, part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. Challenged to make this section of road one of the most visually pleasing in the state, engineers pulled out all the stops: the highway vaults from ridge to ridge on spiraling bridges, and the openings to three strategically placed tunnels frame views of Mt. Rushmore. As you ascend to Norbeck Overlook, the highest point along the route, look to the west at 7,242-foot Harney Peak — the greatest of the Black Hills’ many domes and, in fact, the loftiest mountain between the Rockies and the Swiss Alps.

From the overlook, the road descends to Lakota Lake and Iron Creek (lined with 300-year-old pines and a lush understory of ferns and berry bushes) and then continues on to Custer State Park’s 71,000 acres in the heart of the Black Hills’ gold rush country. When Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his men discovered gold nearby in 1874, a party of would-be prospectors pitched camp here, violating a treaty that had kept the Hills in Indian hands. They were escorted out of the Hills by federal officers less than a year later. A replica of their encampment (named the Gordon Stockade, for the party’s leader) offers an intriguing glimpse into the lives of the first white settlers in the area.

The park is best known for its wildlife, including bison — at 1,500 head, one of the largest public herds in the nation. To view these imposing creatures (watch them from the safety of your car), drive the 18-mile-long Wildlife Loop Road through the grasslands where they graze.

9. Needles Highway
No less intriguing than Iron Mountain Road is Needles Highway (Rte. 87), named for the fingerlike spires that line the road. Twisting and turning, the route threads a course through formations of billion-year-old granite, said to resemble everything from praying hands to pipe organs. To the north, Harney Peak punches the skyline with its robust dome. From idyllic Sylvan Lake, where Rtes. 87 and 89 meet, a challenging three-mile trail leads to the summit and sweeping views of the Black Elk Wilderness Area.

10. Wind Cave National Park
After looping south on Rte. 89 and east on Rte. 16A, the drive breezes down Rte. 87 to Wind Cave National Park. Here a rich assortment of wildlife large and small — prairie dogs, coyotes, elk, bison, pronghorns, mule deer — share more than 28,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie and pine forest.

The main attraction, however, is underground. Wind Cave may have been known to local Indians for centuries, but it wasn’t until 1881 that white settlers learned of its existence. Lured by a strange whistling sound, brothers Jesse and Tom Bingham stumbled upon a small hole, the cave’s only natural entrance.

Word of the men’s discovery spread quickly. In time it became evident that the Bingham brothers had stumbled upon not just one cave but an entire network ringing the hard granite core of the Black Hills — a vast subterranean labyrinth that, scientists believe, remains 95 percent unexplored. A variety of guided tours — one is lighted by the flickering glow of handheld candle lanterns — offer enticing glimpses of the delicate calcite formations (given fanciful names as flowstone, frostwork, boxwork, and popcorn) that adorn the cave’s multitude of narrow halls and enormous chambers.

11. Jewel Cave National Monument
After swinging north almost to the town of Custer, the drive spurs west on Rte. 16 across a high mountain valley to the next stop, Jewel Cave. As intriguing as its geological cousin to the south, Jewel Cave is so named for its resplendent calcite crystals. Once you return to the light of day, the hillsides and wildflower meadows of the park’s Hell Canyon offer a warm contrast to the cave’s chilly depths — just right for a picnic.

12. Crazy Horse Memorial
A massive sculpture-in-progress, the Crazy Horse Memorial honors the Lakota warrior who helped defeat Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The idea for this Herculean undertaking originated in 1939, when Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote a letter to sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (then assisting Borglum at Mt. Rushmore) and asked him to design a similar monument to Indian culture. “My fellow chiefs and I,” he explained, “would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too.” Ziolkowski set to work and continued until his death in 1982. Today his work honoring the great chief is overseen by his wife and seven of his children, using the detailed guidelines he left behind.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is slated to be a three-dimensional sculpture-in-the-round that depicts the warrior charging out of the mountainside atop his galloping horse. When completed it will stand 56 stories tall and more than two football fields in length. So far, the warrior’s face and outstretched arm have emerged, with the upper half of the 22-story horse’s head roughly blocked out. A scale model at the visitor’s complex shows how the monument will appear when it is finished. In June, an annual volksmarch is held to ascend to the top of the outstretched arm.

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