Huddled in the middle of America are mountains filled with history and mystery, alpine meadows, waterfalls and a diverse collection of free-roaming wildlife. These are the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Home to the highest concentration of parks, monuments and memorials in the United States -- including the iconic Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse mountain carvings -- this region
represents a million-acre playground.
Today's traveller encounters visitor attractions far more inviting than did the miners, madams, merchants, cowboys and card-sharps who descended on the Black Hills following the discovery of gold here in 1874.
Mountain resorts, scenic drives, restaurants and outdoor adventure increasingly are making this a destination for travellers seeking to explore the vast American West. While pursuing activities such as boating, hiking, fishing, sight-seeing or bicycling on the 109-mile Mickelson Trail -- visitors encounter wildlife, rippling trout streams and wondrous scenic visits.
Where the buffaloes roam
Travelling in Custer State Park, a 110-square-mile preserve, is a scene straight out of the Wild West because of its alpine resorts and the largest buffalo herd outside of Yellowstone National Park.
The park's Visitor Services Coordinator Craig Pugsley says, "When visitors arrive at Custer State Park, they leave their laptops and cell phones, and reconnect with their kids, their spouses and a countryside that remains much the way it was a hundred years ago. This is a place where the bison still roam free and the deer and the antelope play."
Among the park's most popular activities are driving the scenic Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road, boating on a quiet lake, horseback riding, hiking, chuckwagon cook-outs and taking an open-air Jeep safari right into the buffalo herds. CSP's annual Buffalo Roundup each fall affords visitors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear the thunder of 6,000 hooves as park staff and volunteers assemble the preserve's 1,500 head of American bison.
Badlands worth a visit
An hour west of Rapid City, flanking the eastern slope of the Black Hills, is Badlands National Park, a 244,000-acre moonscape that the Lakota had originally labelled "mako sica" or "land bad" centuries before white men gazed upon it. When Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer first encountered the Badlands, he described it as "hell with the fires burnt out." With ragged ridges, chiseled spires and deep canyons ravaged by the elements, this may be the most unusual terrain in the world.
Men on the mountain
As many as 3 million visitors have gazed at the four faces on Mount Rushmore each year since the colossal mountain carving was completed in 1941. It depicts the birth and development of the US through the carved portraits of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Mount Rushmore is not the only massive mountain carving gracing the Black Hills. Just 15 miles away stands Crazy Horse Memorial, a tribute to all Native American people. When completed, the
563-foot statue will rank as the largest work of art in the world.