South Dakota’s monuments are worth the trip all on their own. We visited Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, the world’s largest Bigfoot in Keystone and the world’s largest Smokey the Bear in Hill City. What a great area…let me tell all you about.
Hill City and Smokey the Bear
From Sturgis, we drove down Hwy 170, through the Central Hills and into Hill City. Mount Rushmore is super close to here, but we intentionally saved it for another day.
Here’s a sidenote…if you’re heading to South Dakota then get them to send you a visitor’s packet. I had one sent to my sister-n-law in Colorado and it was just like Christmas opening up the pack and starting to plan! Ask for the Map of Western South Dakota, Black Hills & Badlands. We found it to be instrumental in helping us know where to head!
We really only went to two places in Hill City, so I’m not much of an expert on it. But we did drive through the downtown and it’s super cute. Definitely worth a stop.
Steve and I went to Prairie Berry Wines to get a bottle of their Red Ass Rhubarb wine. This is one time where I fell for the marketing! We saw the winery listed in booklets from my visitor’s packet and then we saw billboards for it. I’m a sucker for a good name on a bottle of wine! We got a bottle for my sister who we planned to visit in Chicago. I’m not sure that this wine tastes very good…it’s all about the name!
When we were kids growing up in Louisiana, my dad used to say two things that we hated to hear. The first was, “That really chaps my hide!” and the second was, “You’re giving me a case of the red ass!” If either of those terms came out of his mouth, we knew we better get busy looking busy. Or better yet, just hide! Ha! So Red Ass Rhubarb wine, yes, thank you very much!
The other place we visited in Hill City is Dahl’s Chainsaw Art. Our friend David, aka Red Teacup, took us on an art tour of his chainsaw art in Sheridan, Wyoming. So it was a no-brainer that we’d stop here. And what a stop! The world’s largest Smokey the Bear, a ginormous chair that dwarfed even 6’3″-tall-Steve AND Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We were as happy as could be. South Dakota’s monuments are awesome!
Crazy Horse Memorial
Eleven miles from Hill City is Crazy Horse Memorial. Now, our South Dakota trip occurred in late October, so most of the summertime attractions are already closed up tight. We felt happy to know that Crazy Horse Memorial is open for business! We arrived early, paid our $12 bucks each and headed towards the visitor center. From this parking lot location, you can see the stone work in the mountain, and it’s great. But for another $5 each, we hopped into a school bus and rode up close to the work in progress. Our guide shared information on the way and then we had about ten minutes to stand at the foot of the mountain to take it all in.
I loved it! The beauty, the inspiration, the mission, all of it. I just loved the whole vibe here. The dream began in 1939 when Chief Henry Standing Bear invited sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to create a tribute to Native Peoples to show that “the red man has great heroes, also.” Standing Bear wanted the monument to honor his maternal cousin, Crazy Horse. And he wanted the monument in the Black Hills because of its significance to the Lakota people. Korczak accepted the invitation and the project began on June 3rd, 1948.
Korczak assisted Gutzon Borglum at another of South Dakota’s monuments, Mount Rushmore, in 1939 and was the perfect choice as sculptor to create the Crazy Horse Memorial. He worked on the project until his death in 1982, at age 74. His family still works at the site, receiving no federal funding to continue this huge undertaking. The second and third generations of the Ziolkowski Family is motivated by their dedication, determination and courage to carry on Korczak’s work.
In addition to the construction of the monument, the family expanded the mission to create The Indian Museum of North America, The Native American Educational and Cultural Center and The Indian University of North America. During the summer, Native artists, performers and culture bearers share their kownledge and skill with visitors. Dancing, music and story telling in a way that keeps this vibrant culture alive and vital, what’s not to love?
South Dakota’s Monuments: Largest Bigfoot in America
Our next stop wasn’t actually Bigfoot or Mount Rushmore, as we drove down to the town of Custer, then through Custer State Park and into Wind Cave National Park. I’ll talk about that in another post, as this one is already fairly long-winded.
So, for us, after leaving Wind Cave, we drove back north towards Keystone, South Dakota. Cupcake is too tall to fit through some of the tunnels around Mount Rushmore, so we took a little larger loop to get back north. It’s all beautiful though, so we didn’t feel cheated out of any scenery. Most of Keystone shut up tight on Thursday when we arrived, but it was open on Friday. So I’m guessing that during the winter months this is a weekend town.
After posting a picture of our Smokey the Bear stop on Facebook, another full-time traveler friend told us about Keystone’s Bigfoot.
Check out Leandra’s travel blog when you get a minute. We’ve been to a lot of the same places and even tried to meet in real life in Utah’s Canyonlands, but it just didn’t work out.
After all the wood carving goodness in Hill City, you know we had to see Bigfoot for ourselves. We visited with one of the carvers for a while and checked out all their wood products. Definitely stop by and pick up your own small (or large) carving for your own yard. They had many cool items to offer.
Keystone has a ton of cool stuff to do in the summer…we wanted to go to the Rushmore Borglum Story, a museum about the lifetime work of Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln, both sculptors of Mt Rushmore. But it wasn’t to be. There’s a historical museum, Rushmore Tramway Adventures, helicoptor tours, a wax museum, a zipline and an adventure park. But not in October. So we have very small to zero crowds, but we don’t get to do a lot of the cool stuff that’s offered in warm weather. It’s a trade off.
After leaving Keystone, it’s only a few minutes to Mount Rushmore. Closer than we expected, because boom, around a bend and there they stood, all four presidents looking down as we drove near. We kept driving to the backside of the monument where we stayed the night at Wrinkled Rock Trailhead. Literally behind the largest monument imaginable, we just let out our truck camper slide and boondocked for the night. For free. So cool.
We saved Mount Rushmore for last in our tour of South Dakota’s monuments. I think literally we saved the best for last. Who carves entire mountains? I can’t even wrap my head around the enormity of it.
There’s no admission charge, but there is a $10 parking fee. The attendant told us where to go to fit Cupcake in and we parked near two other truck campers. How fun is that! The Lincoln Borglum Visitors Center is open year round (except Christmas Day) but the audio tour section is closed off season. Or maybe that’s a Covid-closure, I’m not really sure.
We started getting great mountain sculpture views as soon as we walked up the flag-lined path. Normally I don’t think of myself as super patriotic. But walking along those flags and seeing our forefathers sculpted into a mountainside. Well that certainly brought out the patriot in me! How amazing to see the works of their lives memorialized in such a grand way. Each of these men shaped our nation in their own way. Can you imagine how they’d feel to see themselves on a mountainside though? Did they know they were great men? Or did they just live their lives as best they could each day?
I guess the visit got me thinking of my own mortality, because, duh, I’m morbid and probably narcissistic. And I think that after a couple generations, I’ll just be someone’s dead great-great-grandma. But these guys got their faces carved on a mountain. Crazy Horse too, not just these four guys. A literal mountain got carved into their likenesses. So overwhelmingly awe inspiring.
We did the Presidential Trail, where you get close to the base of the mountain and along the way you can read about each of the presidents. They were great men, honestly. You can read all about them somewhere else though, I won’t even pretend to be knowledgeable enough about any of them to do them justice.
The monument though…here are some fun facts!
- The heads are about 60 feet tall, that’s about a six-story building.
- George Washington’s nose is 21 feet long, while the others’ noses are each about 20 feet long.
- Each of their eyes are about 11 feet wide and their mouths are 18 feet wide (that’s like three of Steve, stacked one atop the other!)
- A skilled driller on the mountain earned $1.25 per hour, better wages than the nearby mines.
- The skill of the dynamite workers allowed them to remove 90% of the 450,000 tons of granite from the mountain through blasting.
- The “powder men” became so skilled that they could blast to within four inches of the finished surface to grade the contours of the lips, noses, cheeks, necks and brows.
- It took about 400 workers to complete the project.
I really enjoyed our time in the visitors center learning about the construction phase of the mountain. I never realized before our visit that the monument is actually complete. Work stopped in 1941 because federal funds were needed elsewhere.
If you get the chance to visit South Dakota’s monuments, I say take it! This whole state surprised me in its diverse landscape and memorials. Just like most places we travel, this one just became my new favorite!