Black Hills: Keystone. Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse

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I was headed somewhat aimlessly into the Black Hills, as I headed south out of Rapid City.  I knew there were a lot of places to see, like Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, as well as several scenic byways.  But nothing is very scenic, when the weather turns bad, and as I headed into the town of Keystone, I began to realize the rest of my day was going to be gloomy.

The town of Keystone is just a couple of miles downhill from Mount Rushmore.  Keystone is well on its way to becoming one of those nightmare tourist towns.  If you’ve ever been to Kissimmee or Gatlinburg, you know the kind of place I’m talking about.  Fortunately, there are some worthwhile stores here, but most only offer up the same cheap souvenirs (you’ll laugh the first time you see the t-shirt with naked bottoms carved into a mountain, and a tourist saying, “I think we’re somewhere behind Mount Rushmore”, but it gets old fast).  Despite the nearly-over-the-top feel, Keystone would make a good overnight stop, and it does have the area’s most convenient cluster of hotels to Mount Rushmore.

There is an old section to Keystone, which is much more satisfying to visit than the hyper-touristy sprawl along US 16A. Turn onto Reed Street (there are signs pointing to the historic district).  There is at least one good antique store here, but don’t believe the signs that advertise gas.

As you head out of town, southbound, US 16A climbs a steep hill.  Near the top, the road splits, and South Dakota Route 244 heads towards the monument (16A continues south into Custer State Park).

From Route 244, you can get a couple of good views of Mount Rushmore.  As you round this curve, the carved mountain appears directly ahead of you.  It’s still quite far away, though (and somewhat hard to spot in this picture).

Of course, the best place to view Mount Rushmore is at the well-developed visitor center at the top of the hill.  With hopes that the weather would eventually clear, I decided to bypass the visitor center, and return for the lighting ceremony at sunset.  I’ll tell you more about how that went, later on.

After you pass the visitor center, headed west on Route 244, the road curves around the side of Mount Rushmore.  It’s here that you find another view of the mountain.  There’s a turnoff for the “profile view” parking lot.  From this area, you only get to see George Washington’s profile, but it still makes for a neat camera shot.  (I also returned here after dark)

Breezy Point Picnic Area

Just beyond the border of Mount Rushmore National Monument, there’s a turnoff for the Breezy Point Picnic Area.  On a whim, I decided to check it out.

In addition to several picnic areas, the views are quite nice from here.  Outcroppings of granite are everywhere…

… and there’s a nice view of the surrounding Black Hills.  But none of it is very exciting on a day when the temperature is in the 40’s, and it’s about to rain, so I didn’t stay long.

Instead, I tried to decide where to go next.  I continued on Route 244, but the road was mostly forested, and there weren’t many great views.  Route 244 ended at US 16, so I decided to head south, towards…

Crazy Horse Memorial

If you thought Mount Rushmore was an ambitious project, wait ’til you get a look at Crazy Horse Memorial.  When (or if) the monument is ever completed, the entire mountain will be carved into a sculpture depicting Oglala Lakota Indian leader Crazy Horse, riding on a horse, with his arm stretched forward, pointing ahead. Work began in 1948, and progress is slow, due to a lack of funds, however, the face of Crazy Horse has been sculpted.

Here’s a quick history lesson.  Crazy Horse led the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians during the Great Sioux War of 1876-77.  He is credited with leading the successful defeat of General George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.  But, in the months that followed, he failed to fight off the U.S. Army, and eventually surrendered.  You will find much more here.

Because I’m a thrifty traveler, I decided not to pay the admission to enter into the Crazy Horse Memorial grounds.  I know those admission fees go to fund the completion of the project, so I certainly didn’t do my part to help the project.  But I figured, besides visiting a gift shop and museum, there wasn’t much more to see inside the gate, than what I could see from the road.  Besides, the weather was lousy.

Even though work was begun on Crazy Horse Memorial, with the blessing of Lakota Chief Standing Bear and other tribe elders, the project has always been controversial.  Some say the giant sculpture exploits Crazy Horse’s image, as well as desecrates sacred land.

Crazy Horse Memorial is located 4 miles north of Custer, South Dakota on US 16/385. 

Custer

The town of Custer has a nice downtown with wide streets and plenty of souvenir shops, just in case you haven’t seen enough of them.  Also watch for a Hollywood-style sign that spells out CUSTER.  The sign is in Big Rock Park, just above downtown.  I would have done a little exploring, and tried to get a closer look at the sign, if I hadn’t already decided on my next destination — one where gloomy skies didn’t matter: Wind Cave National Park. (Yes, I know there’s some blue sky in this picture.  Trust me, it was a momentary break, not a sign of things to come.)

If you’re a fan of the stone age, or just a fan of the cartoon that brought the prehistoric world to life, you’ll want to visit Flintstones Bedrock City Park, west of town on US 16.  It’s all here: from the Water Buffalo Lodge to the Bedrock Beauty Shop, and of course, Fred’s and Barney’s houses.  There’s also a campground. 

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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