Black Hills of South Dakota

Black Hills was named so by the Native Americans due to the evergreen Ponderosa pines that grow on the slopes and look black from a distance. It is the only “mountainous” part of South Dakota, they even have a ski resort there 🙂 In general the prairie of the Dakotas is void of trees, so the timber in the Black Hills as well as the animals that roam the area were very valuable to the Native Americans and the first settlers. The Black Hills started to rise around 62 million years ago after the collision between the floor of the Pacific Ocean and the North American continent. Had the Black Hills retained their sedimentary overlay from deposits of ancient oceans, they would today be a mountain range rising to an elevation of nearly 15,000 feet. But, because of erosion, about 7,500 feet of the mountains were swept away, and part of the material now exists as the popular bentonite clay overlay of the moonscapes of Badlands National Park, South Dakota.



Although sharing these pictures and writing about my experiences in the Dakota territories is over an year overdue (I visited in Nov 2016), the southwest corner of South Dakota was my first real glimpse into the American West, its phenomenal National Parks, the history of the Homesteading Act and splitting up the West into territories, states, and ranches. It is a long story to tell and with a few blog posts I hope to be able to give you a glimpse into this incredible land and culture that will always hold my heart!
The Longest Drive Ever – Northern Wisconsin to Southwest South Dakota
Cowgirl-ing @ Circle View Guest Ranch
The Badlands of South Dakota


Currently the Black Hills National Forest is a protected area, home to Custer Wildlife Park, Wind Cave National Park, Spearfish Canyon, Historic Deadwood, Mt. Rushmore National Monument and Crazy Horse Memorial just to name a few and tons of Wild West and early settlers history! I’d recommend a minimum of 5 days to truly experience the area and have time to visit places of importance to you. I did it in 3 days and it was a constant rush, run, and go go go. I also didn’t get to enter some of the sites due to late season closing or lack of time 😦 I have promised myself to return to this corner of America one day and spend a week there fully immersing myself in history and nature!


First things first in the Wild West – a smile and a “Good Day Sir” goes a long way 🙂 I even wrote an “ode” to the kind people of the American West. Deep into the forests of South Dakota, on a dirt road next to an abandoned mine, a local man from this shack took my tourist map and outlined my route for the next 3 days – places to visit, drives to take, entrances to use so I don’t pay fees, hidden local gems, sites to skip! His local knowledge and advice made my trip so much more genuine and enjoyable! THANK YOU Sir, you will never be forgotten!  He also let me explore his family’s mine all by myself…

My advice to all my traveling friends is: “talk to the locals, don’t be afraid of them”

One of the coolest experiences I had while road tripping the American West was to go deep into an abandoned gold mine by myself with just a gas lantern in hand! (Scariest too, my legs were shaking the whole way…damn #yolo) Peeking thru gates and over fences and acting brave will get me in trouble one day… #curioisitykilledthecat


” You wanna go in the mine and take a peak? Walk all the way in, until you reach the waterfall” the same local man said while he handed me the gas lantern… Little did I know he wasn’t joining me as a tour guide and I was about to take this walk alone…


The miners (and local man’s forefathers) cut this tunnel by hand in the late 1800s/early 1900s, chiseling out gold until one day they struck water and the resulting waterfall took them out with brute force and drowned them 😦 The mine hasn’t been used since, the family owns the rights to it and sometimes opens the underground waterfall as a tourist attraction. It has been closed for the last 2 years…I’m one of the few outsiders who went in, blessed by the owners  #whenserendipitystrikes


Since I’m obsessed with mines, sticking with the topic! The Homestake Mine is an underground AND open faced gold mine located in Lead, South Dakota. Until it closed in 2002 it was the largest and deepest gold mine in North America. In terms of total production, the Homestake mine was the second-largest gold producer in the United States, only after the Carlin district in Nevada. I have no words to describe its structure – the tour and museum are a must! Also, ask them what elemental particle (neutrino) experiments they are currently doing at the lowest level – 8,000ft below the surface of the Earth ) DO go for an underground tour! (Of a regular touristy mine, please :-))


If you make your way to Lead, SD, you have to stop for a few hours in Historic Deadwood. The entire city is a National Historic Landmark District for its well-preserved Gold Rush-era architecture. An announcement of the discovery of gold in the Black Hills n 1874 triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush and gave rise to the new and lawless town of Deadwood, which quickly reached a population of around 5,000. Deadwood became known for its lawlessness, murder was common and punishment not always fair and impartial. Demand for women was high and the business of prostitution and gambling proved to have a good market. To this day gambling is legal in Deadwood and you can still grab a drink in the old saloons full of relics and memories! My wanderlust, inability to sit still, and preference to skirt the law would have made such a great outlaw… #Iridewelltoo #bornatthewrongtime #acenturytoolate


The town attained further notoriety for the murder of gunman Wild Bill. Mount Moriah Cemetery is the final resting place of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. Wild Bill’s murderer, Jack McCall, was prosecuted twice because of a ruling that Deadwood was an illegal town in Indian Territory and thus lacked the jurisdiction for legal prosecution.

View from the cemetery into Deadwood


Mt Moriah Cemetery – where Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are buried


I had to check out the saloon where Wild Bill was murdered

Did you know South Dakota has its own “Grand Canyon”? As Frank Lloyd Wright explained in his visit of 1935, “had Spearfish Canyon been on the ’throughway’ to westward migration, the canyon would be as significant in public appreciation as the Grand Canyon is today”. The genesis of Spearfish Canyon spans an interval 12 TIMES GREATER than that of the Grand Canyon. Evolution began about 62 million years ago although its present formation began only about 5 million years ago. In this latest episode, the sculpting of the 1,000 foot deep Spearfish Canyon in hard limestone continued during the same time period that the Grand Canyon was carving a 5,000 foot deep gorge in the softer, more porous sedimentary rocks of Arizona.


Spearfish Canyon’s rich vegetation (of the 1,585 plant species found in South Dakota, 1,260 can be found in Spearfish Canyon) and abundance of water earn it the name of “the most magnificent canyon in the West”. I didn’t know any of that and I was in awe with the geologic formations and natural history of South Dakota!


Bridal Veil Falls is one of the many stops and short hikes on the scenic ALT 14 road through Spearfish Canyon and a must see in Spring and Summer!


Continuing with the scenic roads in the Black Hills, you must drive Iron Mountain Road and look at Mt. Rushmore from there. Together with the Needles Highway, it is an engineering work of art that took major planing and many human sacrifices to build 😦


With the beauty of the mountains as its backdrop, these roads were specifically designed with a tremendous amount of curves to limit the speed of travelers to 35 miles per hour so that they could enjoy the beauty of the Black Hills. What makes them so unique is not just the amount of curves and the surrounding beauty, but also the architectural features found along the roads. Wooden structures, called pigtail bridges, and one lane tunnels were built to showcase the American patriotic symbol, Mt. Rushmore. These tunnels frame Mt. Rushmore National Memorial like a picture and are a spectacular site – depending on which direction you are traveling, you may have to look in your rear view mirror 🙂 Do spend a day driving these roads and take plenty of pictures.


Mount Rushmore as seen from one of the tunnels on the Iron Mountain Highway

Since I’m partial (and quite horrified to be honest) by the White Settlers carving sculptures into sacred Native American mountains, I did not visit the monuments and only took pictures from the road. Do as you please, just remember many battles were fought for that land and even more innocent Native American lives lost to protect it 😦


Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a sculpture carved into the granite face of the Black Hills in Keystone, South Dakota. It was created to promote tourism in the area and it features 60-foot (18 m) sculptures of the heads of four United States presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Grrrrr 😦


The carving of Crazy Horse is even more horrifying…completely against my beliefs on how land, history, and nature should be preserved  You don’t steal land from the Native Americans, destroy the mountains they view as sacred and carve the face of one of their chiefs in rock when they believe the spirit lives forever… #speechless 😦 How can people go there and pay their hard earned $ for a “private sculpture” is beyond my understanding. Because that’s what Crazy Horse is – one crazy man carving his crazy project on his “private” land  #itaintyoursdude #youstoleitfromtheNatives

Legend says that the Lakota (Sioux), Native Americans who live in the Black Hills of South Dakota, emerged from the underground tunnels through a hole that blew air. The caves found in Wind Cave National Park are said to “breathe,” that is, air continually moves into or out, equalizing the atmospheric pressure of the cave and the outside air. Legend also claims Wind Cave National Park is in the form of a bison.

Look at the picture, decide for yourself 🙂

Wind Cave is the sixth-longest in the world with 140.47 miles of explored passageways.
(The nearby Jewel Cave is the second longest in the world.) The cave is also considered a three-dimensional maze cave, recognized as the densest cave system in the world. It is notable for displays of boxwork and frostwork. Approximately 95 percent of the world’s discovered boxwork formations are found in Wind Cave.


Above ground, the park includes the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the United States. Hiking in the prairie of the Black Hills is only possible when you are fenced in and protected from the bison… Who’s the “caged animal” now!? There are 2 miles of single track trail in Wind Cave National Park where you are kept safely in 🙂 and the bison roam free outside 🙂 #stayonthetrail #dontpetthebison


The Wind Cave bison herd is one of only four free-roaming and genetically pure herds on public lands in North America.


Another “landmark” in South Dakota are the truck stops on I-80  Truck stops are the only places in the remote corners of the Wild West where you see people…hence my love for them in Nevada, the Dakotas, Utah, and Wyoming. Hi, People, I’ve missed you  


The true Cowboy Corner gas station experience in Interior, SD vs the overly commercialized and touristy Wall Drug. Its history is fascinating nevertheless!
Isn’t this US map with state magnets the coolest thing ever for family travels?!

Even in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I stayed true to my hot springs loving nature and took a half day break to soak my tired body (and test the water slide :-)) of Evans Plunge! Established in 1890, it is the oldest tourist attraction in the area 🙂 🙂 🙂 A natural thermal spring sends a constant flow of 5,000 gallons of water p/min and maintains pool temp of 87F. No chlorine is used and the water is famous for its healing properties.

Playground for adults with pebbled bottom and hot mineral water in Hot Springs, SD

Last but not definitely not least, I should tell you about Sturgis! Sturgis is FUN with capital letters! It is an incredible Wild West outpost in the middle of nowhere that one must visit to understand bikers, rowdiness and Western bars  During the hot and dusty first week of August, Sturgis hosts the annual Harley Davidson Rally that gathers bikers from around the world and features many parties, loud exhausts, and a wild, bison-filled ride across Custer State Park. Attendance is around 500,000 people, reaching a high of over 700,000 in 2015. The event generates around $800 million in revenue for the area.



Every year during the motorcycle rally the bikers drive thru Custer Wildlife Park where wild bisons roam the road. Despite all signs to stay away from the animals and keep one’s distance, there is at least one biker every year (if not a few) that get gored by bison and thrown up in the air together with their bikes. #dontpetthebison #itsbiggerthanyou


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