On The Road In The National Park System: There's Cold In Those Hills

The Black Hills have long been considered sacred ground by the native people, and after a visit here, perhaps you will too. Start your journey in Rapid City, South Dakota, which is set against the eastern slope of the mountains. The history here, of miners, soldiers, and native tribes, is fascinating. Gold drew the original settlers, but tourism now sustains the region.

Alternate TextA painting inside the visitor center at Devils Tower portrays the legend of how a bear trying to climb the outcrop left its claw marks in the rock/NPS

Just 90 minutes (53 miles) south of Rapid City is Wind Cave National Park, which treasures one of the world’s longest caves at 140 miles. The natural opening “’breathes” with changing weather and pressure. The whistling sound of escaping air gave the cave its name.

On the surface, herds of bison and elk graze the grassy meadows. Prairie dogs chirp from their mounds as eagles soar above. Underneath it all are the unique formations that occur when limestone is carved by underground streams. Thin blades of calcite are built up in a honeycomb formation (called boxwork), along with cave popcorn, helictite bushes, and calcite rafts. The cave is a fragile fairyland of stunning natural beauty. There’s camping a mile away, and visitor center for the curious.

Only 35 miles to the west, on the south end of the Black Hills, is another well-known natural site: Jewel Cave National Monument. Here you’ll find the third-longest cave in the world, with nearly 170 miles of passages. Sign up for a guided cave tour, but take a coat - it’s only 49°F, which will feel pretty good on a hot summer day. Originally developed as a calcite mine by the Michaud brothers in 1900, it’s now operated by the National Park Service, and is a popular destination for adventurers and families.

Of course the most-visited site in the Black Hills is not a natural feature, but four huge faces. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is just an hour’s drive northeast of Jewel Cave, and here the action is all above ground. The larger-than-life faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln gaze down from the granite cliffs, a monument to America. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum spent 14 years on the mountain, finishing his work in 1941. There’re exhibits, campgrounds, and all tourist services down below their profiles.

If you’re looking to get away from the crowds again, head north on Highway 385 towards the rough but refurbished town of Deadwood, then keep going towards one of the truly stunning landmarks of this world: Devils Tower. Just off the northwest corner of the Black Hills, this volcanic butte has won fame in movies, on Wyoming license plates, and for its challenging basalt rock climbing routes.

A Lakota Sioux legend tells how the columns were formed by a giant bear’s claws, and named Bears Lodge (Matea T’ipila). As a sacred native site you’ll see medicine bundles left as offerings at its base.

Rapid City is 100 miles back east along Interstate 90 to close your loop.