Mt. Rushmore, iconic American tourist destination located among the Black Hills of South Dakota and home of the immortalized faces of former US Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Nearby, the lesser known but serenely beautiful and mis-named Badlands.
Growing up just a stones throw away in Iowa my family had always talked about taking a weekend road trip to Mount Rushmore and the Badlands, and on a visit to the parents back home we finally decided to pack up the SUV and go.
Along the way we would discover what a profoundly cheap vacation a trip to South Dakota can be if you’re on a budget, how to eat healthy (and “Paleo”) on the road, and many lesser known destinations that made the trip even better than I could have imagined.
First, as someone with a libertarian bent, I have mixed feelings about the glorification of political leaders and flag-waving nationalistic spirit. As a bit of a naturalist, I also have mixed feelings about defacing raw, beautiful nature for man made creations of questionable utility. Nonetheless, Mt. Rushmore is worth seeing as a fantastic feat of human achievement and work of art.
Designed by Danish-American Gutzon Borglum (a name whose spelling defies even the most ardent attempts at memorization), Mount Rushmore was sculpted over a 14 year period from 1927-1941. Surprisingly, it was sculpted from the granite rock almost entirely with dynamite and then smoothed out with jackhammers using a technique called “bumping” only when they had got down to the last small layers.
What’s not as well known is that without Stone Mountain, Borglum’s first major mountain sculpture, there may never have been a Mt. Rushmore. Located in Stone Mountain, GA, the sculpture is a monument to the Confederate heroes General Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and “Stonewall” Jackson. Stone Mountain is also perhaps more obscure than it otherwise might be since the land and much of the funding for the project came from the Klu Klux Klan.
As we wandered around the visitors area and park we also saw some of the original plaster models that the workers used as a reference, and some of the original equipment used in construction.
The neatest and most unexpected surprise came when I visited the gift shop. Don “Nick” Clifford, the last surviving Mount Rushmore worker, was there autographing copies of his book. Sculpted almost like a living statue himself, I basked in his presence a little while before departing (Limited signed copies of Nick’s book Mount Rushmore Q & A are available online).
Crazy Horse Memorial
Despite being in the works for nearly 60 years, the Crazy Horse Memorial is still well off the beaten tourist path. After seeing Mt. Rushmore, elders of the Native American Lakota tribe approached sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski about the project because they “wanted the white man to know that the red man has heroes too.”
Designed by Korczak Ziolkowski, who also assisted Borglum in the construction of Mt. Rushmore, it has been under construction since the 1940s. Though Korczak died in 1982, the project has been carried on by his children and widow since then. Progress has been so slow for two reasons. 1) An ardent believer in free enterprise, Korczak refused to take any government money for the project. For many years he worked on the project alone, buying dynamite and used equipment with the proceeds from selling his artwork. 2) The memorial is many times larger in scale than Mount Rushmore. All four heads of the presidents would fit inside the head and flowing hair of Crazy Horse, and his body and horse are yet to be sculpted beneath him.
However, with the unveiling of Crazy Horse’s completed face in 1998, the memorial has seen exponential growth in visitors and funding, and hence speed of progress. While it’s still anyone’s guess as to when the project will be fully completed, I can imagine a future when I visit the completed memorial with my own children and show them pictures of my previous visit when there was just a face and chalk outline of a horse’s head poking out of the mountain.
Also at the sight you can see some of Korczak’s breathtakingly beautiful artwork, including his New York World’s Fair first-prize winning sculpture of Polish composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski.
Near Keystone and Mt. Rushmore, Bear Country is a must-see drive through wildlife park. Black bears, bison, elk, reindeer, wolves, pronghorn antelope, and a variety of other animals wander freely amongst the hills and cars as you drive through the park. One bear even decided it would be a good idea to take a seat right in the middle of the road in front of us.
The Badlands are a majestic, Grand Canyon-like experience. Once the home of an inland sea, the softer stone eroded away leaving the beautiful landscape we see today. The Badlands are still eroding fast–about 1 inch per year–so they may be a last chance to see destination.
There are many lookout stops along the driving loop through the National Park to get out of the car, wander around, hike, climb on rocks, and check things out. Along the way we also saw a variety of wildlife including bison (buffalo), pronghorns, deer, and prairie dogs.
One of the amazing things about the area is the incredible diversity of landscapes. We took the long loop through the park (almost skipped the gravel road part of the loop, but so glad we didn’t). No two vistas look alike. Some areas are gray and pock-marked like the moon. Some areas are full of red dunes like mars. And yet other areas are canyon walls that melt away into grasslands.
Eating Healthy on the Road
Even in your hometown eating out and eating healthy can be a challenge, but it’s even more difficult on the road where you’re not sure what’s going to be available or when. And dang it, there is no Whole Foods anywhere in South Dakota.
Many of us from the city have an image of remoter regions being idyllic small towns where the food is all supplied locally through relationships in the community and local family farms. An organic, locavore paradise. However, my experience has been the exact opposite. Small towns are generally havens of the standard CAFO meats and industrially produced, chemical-laden condiments and sauces.
The ideals of grass-fed beef, organic produce, and gluten-free meals have really only penetrated the bigger cities and surrounding areas that service them.
Whenever I eat at a restaurant I go into 80/20 mode for avoiding toxic foods and eating healthy, but following a few simple rules can help you avoid most of the junk.
- Stick to meat, vegetables, and fruit
- Ask for plain olive oil instead of the standard salad dressings
- Leave off any questionable sauce
- If you’re unsure about something, ask
One great surprise about South Dakota was that bison meat was available almost everywhere. Bison is generally a “clean” meat because bison are not given antibiotics, which means they are usually primarily grass fed and can’t be fed heaping portions of grains that cause the health problems the antibiotics are meant to fix. Bison are also generally more free-ranging because they don’t tolerate being confined well and will literally die of stress.
Rather than be completely at the mercy of hunger pangs and whatever we could find along the road, we also packed a full cooler full of goodies like roast beef, grapes, cherries, coconut water, hard-boiled eggs, and block cheese. Our trip was about 5-days long and our food still held out pretty well just by regularly replacing the ice and freeze packs in our cooler.
Don’t forget to ask your restaurant servers where they are from. Most of the service staff are foreign college students visiting the US as seasonal workers. We met people from Moldova, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Jamaica.
Other Recommended Places to See
Black Hills National Forest – Much of the area surrounding Keystone and Mt. Rushmore is part of the forest. Particularly south of town there are lots of fun places to stop by the side of the road, scramble up rocks, and catch unusual views of the presidents.
Mammoth Site in Hot Springs – A still active dig site, many wooly mammoth and columbian mammoth bones are on display in the exact spots they have been uncovered. You are looking at the actual bones and not casts that have been reconstructed for a museum display.
Wind Cave – A beautiful cave system containing interesting formation called “boxwork.” 1 to 1.5 hour tours available.
Thunderhead Falls – A waterfall inside a mountain. Located amongst some beautiful scenery.
Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village – An unexpected stop closer to the South Dakota / Iowa border, archeologists are actively excavating a Native American village dated to 1000 AD. A wattle-daub hut reconstruction is on display. Their findings are part of growing evidence that the Native Americans were much more sophisticated in intensive land use and societal structure than the typical “Noble Savage” image of Indians traversing lightly over the land.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – Sadly tickets were sold out when I got there, but along I-80 there is a stop where you can go underground to the launch site where missileers waited with launch keys in case of Cold War Era nuclear war. It’s recommended you get tickets in advance, though we were never able to get through on the phone.
Tourist traps you can avoid
Keystone – The town is convenient because it’s next to Mt. Rushmore, but it’s basically a tourist trap with limited facilities. Custer looked like a better town to stay and also possibly had greater food options.
1880 Train, Black Hills Steam Train – This 2 hour out-and-back ride through the Black Hills Forest was much less scenic than I anticipated–despite being one of the most expensive things we did. Skip it.
Wall Drug – Located about 10 miles north of the Badlands Visitors Center, it bills itself as the largest drugstore in the world. Basically it’s just a large shopping mall with some Old West dressing on it.
1880 Town – Even though it’s an easy stop off I-80, skip this one. Basically it’s an old town filled with broken old junk. Some props and sets from the movie Dances With Wolves are also on display, but are filthy and don’t look like they’ve been cleaned in years.
Corn Palace – Worth a drive by if you’re driving through this way or stopping at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village, but not worth going out of your way to get to.
Czech Town in Tabor, SD – There’s nothing to see here, it’s just a small town with some Czech street names and some really small houses that some of the original immigrants originally lived in.