Day Three: Monday May 1st 2017
Presidents, Crazy Horses and Snow.
As part of my pre-planning before I came out I spoke to my friend Corey in MN who told me about a good few interesting places that were in reasonable proximity to my hotels but in the opposite direction of where I had originally planned to go. Namely Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monuments but also Deadwood, Lead and Terry Peak – more on those later in the week.
So I added the first two into my firm diary for the beginning of the week. It was predicted to snow over Sundance and Devils Tower on the Monday thru Wednesday so I had already swapped the driving around to make the most of Devils Tower on the Sunday before it snowed me out. I didn’t know the Subaru very well so I was nervous about the unknown terrain in the snow.
So I packed some supplies in the wagon and headed out from the Super 8, headed east onto East Colorado Boulevard parallel to the I90 for a few miles then hung a right down the H85 to Deadwood.
Deadwood is about ten miles south east of Spearfish, really easy to get to but be warned there is a super steep hill on the way down into town and it ends abruptly, you really have to watch that speed!
Once you get through Deadwood there is a fork in the road heading to Lead up in the hills on the Can Am 473 or left to Custer on the 385. This is the road to Mount Rushmore area about 70 miles south and is remarkably scenic. That said, it was a very cold day and to be honest, the scenery as you leave Deadwood is quite depressing. Thousands of fallen trees lie on steep hills in between lone standing ones on either side of the road panning out for miles, looking like a hurricane has swept through and decimated the terrain. It’s either a result of a century of logging and habitation, or simply a hurricane has swept through. It was both sad and austere and I guess a prelude to my trip to Deadwood two days later.
But as you rack up the miles out of Deadwood it quickly becomes really beautiful and you find yourself on a lovely sweeping highway, at the wheel of a large automobile, driving past shut down shacks…..literally letting the day go by …….David Byrne must have passed through this way….because the age and condition of some of the roadside houses/ shacks/lean-to’s were the same as it ever was.
I couldn’t tell the abandoned ones from the lived in ones as no sooner as you drive past a derelict wooden structure than you catch a glimpse of a 50K USD pick-up the size of Iowa parked under the lean-too. It was weird and not for the first time did I wonder what the hell people did for a living in these remote parts of Dakota. The sun came out pretty soon after I left the drab hills of Deadwood and added a certain charm to the many ramshackle houses by the side of the highway. Every so often there would be a fantastic, gloriously expensive and huge homestead with wonderful wooden balcony’s, massive windows, carports and split level living set back from the road a ways. Really modern looking houses which would cost a fortune back in the UK. Someone was doing well in Deadwood, or was doing well out of people like me visiting Deadwood! Ha-ha.
The highway is lined with gorgeous pines and rocky outcrops and there is a famous cave system not far off the road but I never got to go as I wanted to get to Mt Rushmore just after lunch time.
About 35 miles out of Deadwood there is a great pull off by the side of Pactola Lake. The views from this point are spectacular down and across the man-made reservoir. Really beautiful panoramic scene with huge pines thickly stacked to the water’s edge sand wonderful craggy outcrops of rock jutting out of and into the water all around the vast lake. The air was cold due to the temperature but it was really clean air, you know the type that you can taste….and feel going into your lungs….excellent. Good place to grab a drink as for some reason the altitude really makes you thirsty. As you pull back out on the 385, there is Dam half way down past Pactola Lake. Now I am not keen on dams to be honest and wasn’t expecting this en route so it was with some trepidation that I headed across the top of the dam and headed on towards Custer by way of Hill City and Keystone.
Now, here’s a question readers; - why is it that when you’re on a really tall building or mountain or cliff, you get this weird urge to jump off? Even though you’re nowhere near the edge you still feel yourself edging closer to imminent death?? So why is it that when crossing a dam in a nice big 4x4 with power steering and awesome grip did I get the insidious feeling that my trusty mule was tugging to the side of the road waiting to buck me sideways down the wall into sub-zero water and to the bottom of the lake, thus ending a rather pleasant trip thus far?
I whipped the mule and got the hell off the dam and safely back within the confines of solid rock on either side of the wiiiiiiiiide road.
Now for road trippers following me on this jaunt to Mount Rushmore and perhaps thinking of doing the same trip on the same roads, there is an excellent pit stop for gas and supplies about 2o miles out from Mt Rushmore on the junction of US385 and US16 called the Country Inn Bar & Casino just outside Hill City. They were very reasonably priced considering the proximity to Mt Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monuments. Fuel was well prices too.
The Subaru was a great car and very comfortable and a joy to drive but as it was locked in permanent 4wd it tended to be a little thirsty. I was averaging 35mpg although a lot of that was on up and down highways and a steady 60mph in between towns. This may be really good mileage for a small 4x4 but my 5 series does 52 on average so I was keeping an eye on the gauge more than usual. But fuel is so cheap it’s not an issue. More from a – time to fill up again- point of view than anything.
About ten miles north-east of Mt Rushmore is a small town called Keystone, a small pass through town with a few shops and restaurant etc., but on the left as you pass around the towns S-bend, there is a place called Dahl’s Chainsaw Art. This is a great little place to stop at and check out the guy carving statues – some of them massive- out of trees. Really mesmerising to watch with a nice coffee and a bit of sunshine. Then back on the road to Rushmore.
It’s weird. As you amble along the Highway, which is quite sweeping, you can sense the altitude increase in your ears but you don’t quite realise how high you are above sea level. You’re actually climbing to 6000ft above sea level which is way higher than the highest peak in the UK. As you round a lovely uphill right-hander, you see the famous monument up ahead staring straight at you. Like Devils Tower it looks really small from this vantage point and similarly you feel a little let down as the tourist shots make it look towering and huge.
Video: Mt Rushmore, South Dakota
Fear not, for you are about two miles away and it’s still a long way off. There is a great parking spot for cool shots of the iconic monument right here although from recollection I can’t recall if it was entirely legal ha -ha…oh well….some quick snaps and I was back on the road.
You wind your way around the highway and eventually come to the turn-off for the parking area and viewing platform. It’s a really well organised multi storey parking lot, with a $15 entrance fee to the monument and car park. It was bloody freezing outside so I shoved the mule in an underground slot and headed off for the famous presidential monument. I was there on Monday May 1st so it was off season and not too busy. Sure there were a lot of people but nothing compared to what summer must be like with rammed car parks and queues to see the carving.
You are funnelled along a boulevard of granite pillars, upon which are dates for every state that was brought into the union which is quite interesting even for a non-American. But the centre piece is of course the monument. You leave the boulevard behind and walk out onto a massive open viewing are flanked by two carved granite blokes naming all the patrons who sponsored the mountain and keep the place going. It’s massive. It’s truly amazing to see in person. Not only because it’s unbelievable how they managed to do this so many years ago but also the fantastic details, right down to carved glasses on President Teddy Roosevelt. It’s about half mile away directly in front of the viewing platform and – on this day – there was plenty of room to take awesome snaps and set up a tripod to get some really good zoomed shots of the faces on the mountain. It’s quite something to see the claw marks in the carvings and to appreciate the sheer effort in shaving tons of granite off a mountain and bringing out the faces of four US presidents in such a clear way. It was truly awesome. No it’s not MASSIVE! But it’s still huge and inspiring and begs a closer look.
It was, as I say, damned cold and even with a puffa coat the size of France on it was not exactly toasty, so I packed the cameras away and took a hike along the dedicated walkaway on the left of the Amphitheatre and headed p to the mountain to get a closer look,
It was only when you get really close the base of the monument that you really see the detail and markings of the workers who clawed these faces out of pure granite back in 1927. It’s impressive to say the least. Unfortunately because of the recent and forecasted snow the wooden walkway was closed off past the monument's base so I couldn’t get some afternoon sunshine shots on the faces, but with a little modification I was able to highlight the ones I did take and I got some really cool pictures of this famous monument and its famous faces. There’s a great walkway at the bottom of the faces and underneath each President there is a bit of history behind each person and what made them contenders for the monument. (plus a few mountain sheep providing questionable entertainment for all) I’m British so my American history is 101 level and whatever I saw on TV as a kid - just kidding- I know quite a lot but I found this place very interesting and informative and I wished the season was in full swing so that I could have visited the museums and exhibits to learn a lot more about the monument and the history of its famous faces.
There was snow piled up by the walkway and it was getting a little overcast so I headed back to the mule and moseyed on out the trail to the next stop: Crazy Horse Monument about 17 miles from Rushmore on the way to Custer. There was not much else to do as the museum and gift shop were closed due to the season not being in full swing but to be honest, I’m glad I went to the US this week than later in the year as I could imagine crazy tourist mayhem at a place like this.
So I GPS’d the mule and headed out.
Crazy Horse was a Native American war leader of the Oglala Lakota. He fought the U.S. Federal government to defend the way of life of the Lakota people. His most famous action was at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (25–26 June 1876).
You enter the Monument area via a mile-long impressive avenue which leads in a straight line to the monument. Or rather the memorial is about a mile away from where you park and from where the museum and shops are. It’s ridiculously huge. Literally dwarfing Mount Rushmore. Mount Rushmore is four faces, each of which is about 60ft tall. Crazy Horses face is 80 ft. tall and that’s on top of a body which in turn is on top of a horse! So image the scale of that!
You have to imagine it because….wait for it…….wait……….it’s not finished!. Not even close! The whole thing is privately funded and almost no visible progress has been made since 1998 when the face of Crazy Horse was finished. The entire thing gets no financial help from official organisations and is paid for by tourists and donations.
In comparison to the Rushmore monument this place was, for me, sadly, the lesser of the two and the progress made since it started all those years ago is almost invisible to the untrained eye. Such is the scale of the monument and the scope of the work involved. Yes there is a huge face now visible and prominent on the rock face – and yes, it’s much bigger than the faces on Rushmore but that’s pretty much it as far as the sculpture is concerned. The weather was turning a lot more hostile even as I parked the mule and I witnessed two bikers getting ready to head off when it began sleeting down like a b’stard. They got hammered to the tarmac and just sat there in wet weather gear taking it on the chin. Me? I sat in my car wondering what the point of paying another $4USD to get on a bus an get a bit closer to the monument which is about a mile away. I decided I would be better off taking the zoom out and seeing if I could snap a decent pic from where I was.
On a more positive side, there is a fantastic museum and associated workshops to visit and I spent a good few hours learning about the Native American way of life, the hardships, the closeness of the families and above all, the impact they had on the continent, and the devastating impact invaders had on their way of life. As a Brit I know what I know and most of that is through NATGEO mags and Readers Digests from many moons ago. I’m not ignorant to the plight of the first nations but I didn’t realise just how much they and my ancestors affected each other. Mainly the terrible wrongs we perpetrated on them in the 19th century at the height of the land wars and other disagreements. There is a fantastic museum on a lower floor of one of the Native American buildings which is dedicated to the story of the buffalo in the 19th century. I was in there for an hour and it’s absorbing and interesting but ultimately incredibly sad. I had no idea on the figures involved in the Buffalo trade and the massive effect it had on Indian way of life and in such a short amount of time. Tragic is the word that comes to mind.
Make sure you have a chat with Mike upstairs, a Lakota native and also the museum information guy. He’s brilliant and very self-deprecating about the whole history but equally impressed with anyone who bothers to ask questions about the Indian side of events. He’s also hilarious and we laughed about the old movies, new movies, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner and blazing saddles. What a great guy. Check him out. He made the trip to Crazy Horse worth the while. The main museum itself is chock full of amazing artefacts and pictures, photos and exhibits on the Indian way of life in the surrounding hills and beyond. I loved it. I won’t say much else as you should go there yourself. I’m not a huge fan of native American history but I felt much more informed by the time I left and it gave me a much deeper understanding of the places I had been and was to visit in days to come. Isn’t that what museums are for?
During the time I had parked the car and wandered around the museum it had gone from clear and sunny to grey, colder and threatening. As I was browsing the shop, there was a whiteout – the likes of which I’d never seen in my life before. It obliterated the view across to the Crazy Horse Monument in seconds and the whole populace stood in awe of the powerful winds driving heavy snow across the buildings and car parks. I was at once amazing and at the same time actually a little unsteadying.
Video: White Out at Crazy Horse
I was reminded of the good choice I made with the car. A drop-top mustang would have been cool as hell, but for sheer safety and protection, the 4x4 was by far the winning choice…this weather sealed the deal…
And then….in ten minutes…..it was gone……..golden sunshine cascaded thru the shop windows, a huge rainbow bridged the ravine below and the snow was almost a memory….unbelievable!
It was clear enough to venture to the other satellite buildings that house all kinds of Native Indian related stuff and info about the sculptor and his family behind the construction of the massive monument. (I think one of the daughters of the original sculptor served me in the shop…) So I headed for the restrooms and stumbled on the best part of the visit. The block that houses the toilets is also home to thousands of original historical photographs of all that I had seen or heard before. Wall after wall of American Midwest history seen through a lens and featuring famous battles, people, places and events. It was a great way to step back in time and see what the period was like for all sorts of nations trying to rub shoulders with each other in very hard and very hostile conditions.
I decided that the tour up to the monument was not really required as apart from the face there was little other progress and I had captured enough shots from within the viewing area to save the memory of being there.
I bid farewell to the monument with the hope that they acquire the funding to finish the work in a few years so that perhaps in my lifetime there is a fantastic location to go back to and look upon with wonder, just as I did with Devils Tower and Mount Rushmore. Maybe one day.
The snow had moved on to another mountain somewhere and I headed back out on the roads with a little trepidation and slightly less speed ha-ha. It’s a lovely part of South Dakota and the trees with snow on were really something to behold. You can have all the massive monuments you like, but there is no substitute for a natural landscape stretching out for miles in early summer. I hit the HY and headed back up to Spearfish the same way I came. I had intended to head over to Spearfish Canyon via Custer and see what the fuss was about, but for some reason the GPS took me back to the Pactola Dam and up through Deadwood and back up the 385. No matter, it got me back to my hotel in one piece in about 2 hours, perhaps less, and just in good time for a really good dinner at Appleby’s across the interstate – highly recommended – really good food.
All in all a very scenic day and a really lovely drive through South Dakota to Mt Rushmore and Crazy Horse with a total variation in the weather from blazing sun to heavy snow, grey fog to spring showers. I guess Neil Finn has been here too.
Day three, done and dusted, and another couple of famous US landmarks ticked off the bucket list.
Note: If you want any tips or advice on driving from Devils Tower to Mount Rushmore or any other part of this crazy week, please feel free to ask….happy to share my tips and tricks. (Main one is carry lots of drinks…for some reason the altitude – for this Brit anyway - was affecting my thirst a lot and I spent more on water/ fruit juice and sodas than food! – can’t imagine how it is in July and Aug!!!!)
Goodnight from Spearfish Super 8, South Dakota!