Tag Archives: South Dakota

How Rapid City, South Dakota Came to Be ‘The City of Presidents’

A near life-sized statue of President George Washington on the corner outside the Alex Johnson Hotel, one of 43 presidents immortalized in Rapid City, South Dakota, “The City of Presidents.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

If Deadwood, South Dakota – the endpoint of the 109-mile Mickelson Trail on the Wilderness Voyageurs’ six-day “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour – is a shrine to the Old Wild West, Rapid City is what the American West is today.

The Wilderness-Voyageurs Badlands trip (800-272-4141, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com) starts in Rapid City where I cleverly organize my trip to arrive the day before, staying at the famous, historic Alex Johnson Hotel (famous on its own, but made eternally famous for the part it played in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “North by Northwest” – an autographed caricature of Hitchcock is behind the front desk).

The red sign atop the Alex Johnson Hotel, Rapid City, South Dakota, is an iconic symbol of the city © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the Alex Johnson Hotel is a major attraction in itself (it’s red and white sign atop the building is iconic symbol of the city) – the hotel, still the third tallest in South Dakota, even provides a walking tour of many artifacts and architectural features that in their own way tell the story of Rapid City.

The Alex Johnson Hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a member of Historic Hotels of America, which means that successive owners have recognized their responsibility as stewards of these place-making hotels that harbor the story of their respective destination’s history.  To be a member of HHA, which has nearly 300 members, a hotel has to faithfully maintain authenticity, sense of place and architectural integrity. To be nominated and selected for membership into this prestigious program, a hotel must be at least 50 years old; has been designated by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark or listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places; and recognized as having historic significance. (More information at  HistoricHotels.org)

A striking portrait of Alex Johnson in Sioux attire hangs in the lobby of the hotel he built in Rapid City. Johnson was made an honorary blood brother of Chief Iron Horse in 1933, and named “Chief Red Star.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Alex Johnson Hotel was built by Alex Carlton Johnson (1861-1938), who was vice president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Johnson was unusual in that he respected and admired the Native Americans who lived in the area, and developed his hotel as a shrine and tribute to the Sioux Indian Nation. The structural design of the hotel integrates the heritage of the Plains Indians and the Germanic Tudor architecture representing German immigration into the Dakotas.

Construction began in 1927, coincidentally, just the day before work began on nearby Mount Rushmore. The hotel opened less than a year later, on July 1, 1928. 

I follow the walking tour:

At the entrance of the hotel are sculpted Indian heads, taken from the design of Indian-head nickels and pennies.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The entrance has an “AJ” tepee symbol embedded in the entry walkway. The lobby itself is designed in Native American tradition with “Sacred Four Directions” integrated in the lobby tiles. The Lakota Sioux people believed their four sacred powers were derived from the four directions: north (white) a symbol for the “Cleansing Snow.”; east (red), the “Morning Star” which gives “Daybreak Knowledge”; south (yellow) is “Warm Winds” which replenishes the land; west (black) is “thunder Being”, giving strength and power in times of trouble. Among the signs is a symbol that resembles a swastika, but was long used by Native Americans since prehistoric times.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Chandelier that graces the center is made of wood, copper and glazed tile. Suspended with chains, the chandelier is actually formed of war lances. It is in the shape of a teepee and made of concentric, decreasing-sized copper-clad wooden rings. The rings are decorated in authentic Sioux patterns.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The exquisite ceiling incorporates stenciled, authentic Sioux designs between open beams. The brightly-colored patterns, originally painted with natural materials, are in the traditional “box and border” design. There are eight plaster-cast busts of Indian men that hold the beams.

The fireplace is formed of Black Hills stones. The mantle is decorated with brands of local ranchers. A huge rock in the keystone was selected for its resemblance to a buffalo head. Above the fireplace is a striking portrait of Alex Johnson in Sioux attire. Johnson was made an honorary blood brother of Chief Iron Horse in 1933, and named “Chief Red Star.” Another portrait of Johnson, in a more typical businessman pose, was commissioned by the 580 members of the Chicago Rotary Club in appreciation for his service as president (1924-25).

Alex Johnson, who founded the Alex Johnson Hotel, Rapid City, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are two bison heads mounted over the southwest entrance of the AJ’s Mercantile shop (American buffalo are apparently not buffalo at all, but one of two species of bison). I learn that the “buffalo” name was a corruption of “Boeuf” which was the name the French explorers used for the animal.

The mezzanine and second floor are graced with carved wood railings and provide a gorgeous vantage point to appreciate the Indian busts, ceiling painting and chandelier,

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The ballroom, which also served as a nightclub, has four murals painted by Max Rheiner, an artist from Chicago, that realistically depict four well known areas of the region: Harney Peak, the Needles (which we will soon visit), the Badlands (we will soon visit) and Spearfish Canyon.

The Lincoln Room, the site of the original restaurant, has been restored to its original elegance. The ceiling lights are original. The wallpaper custom, hand-printed paper and the same design used in Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield Illinois. An original 19th century Lincoln print is on the wall. Meeting rooms are named after the four presidents on Mount Rushmore.

Paddy O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Grill is named after the hotel’s first guest.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a kind of museum of exhibits – you can see Johnson’s actual headdress and other artifacts.

But that is not all. I learn that the Alex Johnson hotel is haunted – there is an entire book of testimonials from guests who have had sightings, and recently.

Ross Goldman, the front-desk fellow who has been giving me an orientation to the hotel and to Rapid City, points me to an entire book filled with people’s letters and descriptions of encounters.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the rooms that is supposedly haunted, 304, was Alex Johnson’s private room where he stayed when he was in Rapid City, and where he died at the age of 90. But years before, his young daughter died in that room. People, especially children, say they have seen a child ghost  In the Haunting book, I find a drawing by a little girl who stayed in room 304, who drew herself, her brother, and another girl with a dark, long dress you can see through (the ghost), dated July 5 2019. Children say they see ball rolling and that there is a knock on doors all at once.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another haunted room, 812, was where 60 years ago, a bride on her wedding night jumped, was pushed or fell out of window. Guests say that doors open, lights go on and some say when they sleep, they feel something pressing on their chest.

The macabre legends must have appealed to Alfred Hitchcock who used the Alex Johnson Hotel in his iconic thriller, “North by Northwest” and stayed here through the filming of the Mount Rushmore scenes– there is an autographed photo of Hitchcock behind reception desk (the lobby seemed much larger in the movie).

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Goldman (the only Goldman in South Dakota, he notes), tells me his father is from Brooklyn, and came to Rapid City for his medical residency and stayed. What a small world: Goldman’s cousins live on my block in Long Island, New York. (He says there are just 300 Jews in the entire state; they hold their Passover seder in the hotel’s ballroom).

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Later, after exploring Rapid City, I get to appreciate the Vertex Sky Bar on the hotel’s tenth floor (the Alex Johnson hotel is the third tallest building in South Dakota). Originally, there was a solarium here and an observation tower that was later used by KOTA radio station. Today, it is an upscale rooftop bar exclusively for members and hotel guests. It provides a wonderful view for the sunset behind the hills.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Alex Johnson Hotel today is independently owned by the Bradsky family of Rapid City, which they acquired in 2008 on the hotel’s 80th anniversary, and refurbished with loving respect and sense of stewardship for its historic significance and importance to the city. (The family owns several properties, under the Liv Hospitality banner, in Deadwood and Rapid City, including Cadillac Jack’s and Tin Lizzie’s in Deadwood and Watiki water park in Rapid City. (www.LivHotelGroup.com)

Goldman gives me some great tips for our bike trip – especially in Deadwood City, where he tells me to be sure to visit the cemetery where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried, and where there is also a Jewish section.

And he orients me to Rapid City: Memorial Park was created after a major flood in 1972 collapsed the dam, in which 238 people died (signs in the park tell the story), leveling the poorest section of city. He tells me where to get the best buffalo burger (Thirsty’s).

And so I am off to discover Rapid City.

Rapid City makes the absolute most of whatever it has. The architecture except for a small historic district is mostly nondescript, but there is sheer brilliance in that 20 years ago, an artist began an ambitious program to have almost life-sized sculptures of every president on every corner of the two downtown boulevards, Main Street and St. Joseph’s Boulevard. This turned Rapid City into “The City of Presidents.”

President Dwight Eisenhower. Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is fascinating and fun to go in search of them (they aren’t in chronological or alphabetical order). Six artists produced the 43 sculptures, beginning in 2000:Obama’s statue, depicting the Election night scene when he came out holding his daughter’s hand, only went up a couple of months before; Lincoln is also portrayed with his son, Tad; FDR is shown standing at a podium with radio mics; Taft looking amazingly svelte, shown as the first president to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game. There is a self-guided walking tour and a Presidential Scavenger Hunt. It is really fun to try to see all of the presidents. What is most interesting is how these significant personages are set in such ordinary circumstance on nondescript small-town America street corners.

President Thomas Jefferson. Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
President Lincoln with his young son. Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
President Obama is the newest presidential statue. Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A notable exception to the presidents is a bust, “Mitakuye Oyasin” (“We are all related”) by DC Lamphere, from a drawing by Richard Under Baggage, representing “hope for reconciliation, dignity and respect for all the human race.” The earth is in the shape of a hoop or circle of life; crossed pipes represent world peace; the eagle symbolizes all flying creatures, and communication with Tunka Sila; wisdom and the healing arts are represented by a grizzly bear, and a long and productive life is symbolized by a turtle. “The bison reminds us of our ancestors’ healthy lifestyles, free from famine, and also of the white Buffalo Calf Woman who brought us the pipe.”

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another marked contrast to the presidents on every other corner is outside a remarkable shop, Prairie Edge: “Hunkayapi” also was created by local artist Dale Lamphere. The statue, depicting a Lakota naming ceremony, is intended to reflect the warmth in Lakota families, the wisdom of a Lakota elder and the teaching of the Lakota heritage to the next generation.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Prairie Edge is one of the most fantastic Native American shops anywhere. It is almost a museum, with numerous contemporary Native artists who have their own displays, biography and museum-quality art (I learn about quillwork). There is also clothing, including Pendleton & Pilson, blankets and housewares, books and music, and a Sioux Trading Post, and tee shirts and souvenirs and yes items popular in tourist shops on sale, like an old-fashioned mercantile store.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The shop contains a fine art Plains Indian Gallery, a Buffalo Room with bison leather furnishings. There is also the Italian glass bead library boasting the world’s largest selection of glass beads, with  over 2,600 different styles and colors, from the same Venetian guild that supplied fur traders in the 19th century used for trade, including used in trade for the island of Manhattan; after the Societa Veneziana Conterie closed in 1992, Prairie Edge bought the remaining inventory of 70 tons of beads. (Prairie Edge, 606 Main Street, Rapid City SD 57701, 800-541-2388, 605-342-3086, www.prairieedge.com).

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I think about what Goldman told me about continued tension between Native Americans and the “settlers” (for lack of a better word), “Other places are more assimilated. South Dakota has nine Indian reservations. The two largest reservations – Pine Ridge, Rosebud  – make Appalachia look like Beverly Hills.”  And his remarks echo for me when I visit the Crazy Horse Memorial on our Mickelson Trail ride.

Prairie Edge is housed in an 1886 building in Italianate style that began as the L. Morris Dry Goods and Clothing store with a dentist’s office on the second floor and rooms to rent. Known as the Clower Building, it is most famously remembered as the Jack Clower Saloon (1895-1917), a cowboy bar ion its day. It is one of the most beautiful buildings in Rapid City.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What you do expect in an open-carry state that still prides itself as being the wild west, are the gun shops. There is the biggest gun shop I’ve ever seen, First Stop Gun & Coin. (I am amazed at how heavy rifles are; there are “My First Rifle,” child-sized like starter violins, and some pink and decorated rifles geared for women.

First Stop Gun & Coin, Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I wander over to Main Street Square, with a spray fountain, Astroturf and stage for performances, and public restroom. 

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street art, Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street art, Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a surprising variety of restaurants you wouldn’t expect in a place that calls itself “City of Presidents” – Nepali, Mexican (considering how far from the Mexican border we are). Goldman has recommended Thirsty’s, which looks like a pool hall, as having the best buffalo burger in town. I opt for the Firehouse Brewing Company in the historic firehouse next door to Prairie Edge. I take note of a large 1883 photo mural depicting the store that had stood on the site with store names of Jewish proprietors: Herrmann Treber & Goldberg Groceries, Liquors and Cigars Wholesale.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Back at the Alex Johnson Hotel, I go up to the Vertex Sky Bar on the 10th floor to take in the sunset.

Hotel Alex Johnson Rapid City, Curio Collection by Hilton, 523 Sixth Street
Rapid City SD 57701, 605-342-1210,
alexjohnson.com.

More information at Visit Rapid City, 512 Main Street, Rapid City SD 57701, 800-487-3223, 605-718-8484, www.VisitRapidCity.com.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

With better planning, I would have also plugged into my itinerary a visit to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The site provides an opportunity to explore the Minuteman II system’s role as a nuclear deterrent during the Cold War and visit sites rarely seen by civilians while in use, but that nevertheless loomed large on the geo-political landscape, and in these tense times, be reminded about what a threat nuclear weapons are.

I first became aware of the site watching an extraordinary documentary, “The Man who Saved the World,” about Stanislav Petrov, a former lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces and his role in preventing the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident from leading to nuclear holocaust. Now, with Trump and Putin at odds over renegotiating a nuclear arms treaty while boasting about new weapons, it is more important than ever to be reminded of how quickly things can go astronomically wrong.

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota has a cameo appearance in the documentary, “The Man Who Saved the World,” a cautionary tale for today’s nuclear tensions © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The park consists of three sites along a 15-mile stretch of Interstate 90 in western South Dakota: the Visitor CenterLaunch Control Facility Delta-01 and the Delta-09 Missile Silo.The Visitor Center is located immediately north of I-90, exit 131. The two historic sites which make up the park are four miles (Launch Control Facility Delta-01) and 15 miles (Launch Facility Delta-09) from the Visitor Center. No public transportation systems serve the park. A variety of maps are available to assist you visit and historic understanding. – passed Wall on I-90 (visitor center at exit 131). All tours of the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility require advanced reservations. Reservations can be made on-line or by phone at 605-717-7629. (www.nps.gov/mimi/index.htm, https://www.nps.gov/mimi/planyourvisit/directions.htm)

More information from South Dakota Department of Tourism, 605-773-3301, https://www.travelsouthdakota.com/

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© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Mount Rushmore, Finale to 6-Day Wilderness Voyageurs South Dakota ‘Badlands & Mickelson Trail’ Bike Tour

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum wrote of Mount Rushmore, “The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s our last day of the Wilderness Voyageurs six-day “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour of South Dakota, when we would have biked back a portion of the Mickelson Trail that we cycled yesterday before visiting Mount Rushmore. But as luck would have it (and it is actually lucky), it rains as we leave Deadwood. It is lucky because the rest of our rides have been glorious and we did get to complete the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, in addition to riding through Badlands National Park and Custer State Park. Our guides, James Oerding and John Buehlhorn, offer us alternatives: instead of doing the Mickelson 18 miles from Dumont to Mystic (the same trail we did yesterday but downhill) we go directly to Mount Rushmore and see if the weather dries out.

Mount Rushmore is such a familiar American icon, it may be a cliché. But seeing it “in person” makes you rethink what it is all about.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, wrote “Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.”

Borglum also wrote, “The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.”

The National Park Service offers this about Mount Rushmore National Monument: “Majestic figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota, tell the story of the birth, growth, development and preservation of this country. From the history of the first inhabitants to the diversity of America today, Mount Rushmore brings visitors face to face with the rich heritage we all share.”

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The NPS posits that Borglum “selected these four presidents because from his perspective, they represented the most important events in the history of the United States. Would another artist at that time, or perhaps a modern artist choose differently? As you read more about Borglum’s choices, think about what you might have done if the decision was up to you.”

I stumble upon a 15-minute Ranger talk in the Sculptor’s Studio about Gutzon Borglum, the carving process and the lives of the workers – how they dynamited away 90 percent of the stone, leaving just 3 to 6 inches of material to chisel off by hand, how they hang a weight to where the nose should be and create the facial features from that reference point.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Ranger stands in front of a model of how a completed Mount Rushmore was envisioned by Borglum. Who knew there was more? I’ve always taken for granted that what we see was all that was meant to be. The model shows that it would have had their jackets down to their waist and hands.

To see the scale of the sculpture, it is hard to contemplate the challenge of blasting away all that rock and carving that stone. But we learn that getting this project underway was a challenge unto itself.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

South Dakota historian Doane Robinson is credited with conceiving the idea of carving the likenesses of noted figures into the mountains of the Black Hills of South Dakota in order to promote tourism in the region. But once Doane Robinson and others had found a sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, they had to get permission to do the carving. Senator Peter Norbeck (the man who created the Needles Highway through Custer State Park) and Congressman William Williamson were instrumental in getting the legislation passed to allow the carving. The bill requesting permission to use federal land for the memorial easily passed through Congress. But a bill sent to the South Dakota Legislature faced more opposition.

Robinson’s initial idea was to feature heroes of the American West, such as Lewis and Clark, Oglala Lakota chief Red cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody. But Borglum wanted the sculpture to have broader appeal, so chose the four presidents, who would each symbolize an important aspect of American history. (That might be why Robinson was not chosen for the 12-member commission to oversee the project.)

Early in the project, money was hard to find, despite Borglum’s guarantee that eastern businessmen would gladly make large donations. He also promised South Dakotans that they would not be responsible for paying for any of the mountain carving. Borglum got Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon on board, but only asked for half of the funding he needed, believing he would be able to match federal funding ($250,000) dollar for dollar with private donations.

Borglum worked on the project from 1927, the presidents’ faces were carved from 1933-1939, with his son, Lincoln. Meanwhile, in 1929, the stock market crashed; in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt placed Mount Rushmore under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

In March, 1941, as a final dedication was being planned, Gutzon Borglum died. This fact, along with the impending American involvement in World War II, led to the end of further carving on the mountain. With the money – and enthusiasm – running out, Congress refused to allocate any more funding. On October 31, 1941, the last day of work, Mount Rushmore National Memorial was declared a completed project.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Ranger explains that the death of the artist raised an ethical issue for anyone who would take over the work. And, the Ranger said, “The country had moved on. They were not as interested in presidents as they were in the 1930s; when Mount Rushmore was a shrine to democracy. And what if the new artist made a mistake?”

I can see how Mount Rushmore was a cautionary tale for the Crazy Horse Memorial and why sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who worked on Mount Rushmore before being tasked to do Crazy Horse, refused any federal funding, instead establishing a foundation funded with private donations and admissions. Some 70 years after he began his work, his grandchildren are involved in continuing to carve the memorial.

View of Mount Rushmore from the Presidential Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I walk the Presidential Trail (just 0.6 miles long, 422 stairs, weather permitting) to get up close and personal with the mountain sculpture and perhaps glimpse some of the area wildlife.

Some 3 million visitors come to Mount Rushmore each year.

Among the activities offered:  the Junior Ranger program (booklets are available at the information desks for ages three to four, five to twelve and 13 and up), and the Carvers’ Café, Ice Cream Shop  and Gift Shop.

Also:

Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village (10 – 30 mins., free): Explore the history of the Black Hills and the American Indian tribes who have populated this land for thousands of years. Located next to the Borglum View Terrace for 2019, this area highlights the customs and traditions of local American Indian communities. Open 10:30 am to 3 pm,  early June through mid-August, weather permitting.

Youth Exploration Area (10 – 30 mins., free): Explore the natural, cultural and historical aspects of Mount Rushmore with interactive programs. Located at the Borglum View Terrace for 2019. Open early June through early August.

Self-Guided Tour (30 – 120 mins; rental fee): Rent an audio tour wand or multimedia device to hear the story of Mount Rushmore through music, narration, interviews, historic recordings and sound effects while walking a scenic route around the park. Available at the Audio Tour Building across from the Information Center (rentals available inside the Information Center during the winter months). The tour and accompanying brochure are available in English, French, German, Lakota, and Spanish.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It had been gray and drizzly when we first arrived making the monument look dull, but as we are leaving, blue sky breaks through and for the first time, I realize that George Washington has a jacket.

(During our visit, the Visitor Center and amphitheater are closed for construction.)

(Just recently, the last living Mount Rushmore construction worker, Donald ‘Nick” Clifford, who worked on the monument from 1938-40, passed away at the age of 98.)

(Mount Rushmore, 13000 Highway 244, Keystone, SD 57751,  605-574-2523, www.nps.gov/moru/index.htm)

Even thought the weather has cleared up just as we are leaving Mount Rushmore, because it is a getaway travel day, the group decides not to bike (the trail James suggests is impractical because it requires the guides to take off the roof racks in order to fit through the tunnel). We decide instead, to go straight to Rapid City, our departure point, for lunch before we all go our separate ways.

Rapid City, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

Our last lunch together, in Rapid City, is at Tally’s Silver Spoon (best Reuben sandwich outside of NYC!) – just across the street from the historic Alex Johnson Hotel, where I began my South Dakota odyssey a week ago.

What I love best about Wilderness Voyageurs’ “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour are the varied experiences: Badlands – fossils – Circle View Guest Ranch – Black Hills – Crazy Horse – Custer State Park – stone spires – wildlife – buffalo – Blue Bell Lodge – Mount Rushmore – biking the 109-mile long Mickelson rail trail.

Guided bike trips are not cheap, but what I look for is value for money – my test is whether I could reproduce the trip for less out-of-pocket, to make up for the decided increase in convenience of having the itinerary already plotted out. I found Wilderness Voyageurs excellent value – in the services provided, wonderful accommodations (especially the guest ranch and the lodge), dining, creating an itinerary that was idyllic, entrances to attractions (Badlands National Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, Mount Rushmore), and also considerate, superb guides, a relaxed, unpressured atmosphere (“You’re on vacation!”).

The destination, South Dakota, is quite sensational and unexpectedly varied – spectacular scenery, nature and wildlife, fossils (!), culture and history – a microcosm of North America, really. Indeed, it is an ideal destination for international visitors to plunge into the American frontier west mythology of the past, but more interestingly, to see the American West as it is today.  And frankly, even if I rented a bike and paid for shuttle services, I couldn’t have duplicated the itinerary, or the camaraderie, or the expertise and care.

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

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© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Deadwood, South Dakota Resurrects Wild West Past at End of MicKelson Trail

“Calamity Jane” in a daily shootout on Deadwood, South Dakota’s historic Main Street © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com m

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It strikes me as somewhat ironic, or perhaps appropriate, that Deadwood, South Dakota, so famous for being the place where Wild Bill Hickok was killed in a saloon playing poker, after being mining boomtown and a virtual ghost town, has been reincarnated as a casino gaming mecca.

Our hotel, the Deadwood Mountain Grand Resort, actually reflects both these traditions: it has one of the biggest casinos and the building has repurposed what used to be a slime plant (slime is the waste left when they use cyanide to decompose rock to release the gold), that was part of the Homestake Mine. The Homestake Mine was the second-largest gold producer in the United States and the longest continually operating mine in US history, operating from 1885 to as recently as 2001.

We’ve arrived at Deadwood at the end of biking the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, a bike trail converted from a former railroad line named to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame, which we have covered in three days of the six-day Wilderness Voyageurs “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour of South Dakota.

A buffalo strolls over to my cabin at the Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My day begins at the Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park, with a buffalo strolling up to the porch of my cabin. We then are shuttled in the Wilderness Voyageurs van to the Mystic Trailhead, to ride the remaining 34 scenic miles of the Mickelson Trail into Deadwood.

Biking the last miles on the Mickelson Trail from Mystic to Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking the last miles of the Mickelson Trail to its end, in Deadwood, South Dakota at mile 109 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s already about 3 pm, and armed with a list of activities that take place which I have obtained from the concierge (the shootout on Main Street at 6 pm, for example), I quickly drop my things to rush out to get to the Mount Moriah Cemetery which I remember the Alex Johnson Hotel manager, Ross Goldman, telling me about. Though the concierge and the visitor bureau guy discourage me from walking up there (there isn’t a public bus and the bus tour which makes a quick stop at the cemetery doesn’t make sense, I head out anyway – the hike, up 4,800 ft. to a high ridge overlooking Deadwood Gulch – the highest point in Deadwood – proves no big deal (especially compared to the hills we biked yesterday in Custer State Park) and takes just about 20 minutes.

At the entrance, they provide an excellent map with information and location of the notable graves of the important people who are buried here for you to do your own self-guided walking tour.

The major lure – and why there is a line of people – is the side-by-side plots of James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok and Calamity Jane, whose legends continue to animate Deadwood even today.

Wild Bill Hickok’s gravesite is a major tourist attraction that brings hundreds to Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to the guide, James Butler Hickok was murdered in Deadwood on August 2, 1876. He came, along with so many others, to the Deadwood gold camp in search of adventure and fortune. But his true passion was gambling. While playing a game of cards, he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall. “Wild Bill’s colorful life included service as a marshal, an Army scout and other tasks which called for a fast gun and no aversion to bloodshed.” (Later, you can see the re-creation of the arrest of Jack McCall, and then a re-creation of the hastily convened miners’ court, by the Deadwood Alive troop.)

Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary (1850-1903) also had a colorful life, which she largely created and which may or may not be true. “She worked on a bull train, performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and was a prostitute.” She claimed to have been Wild Bill Hickok’s sweetheart (and even that they were married and had a daughter). Her grave marker calls her Martha Jane Burke because she married Clinton Burke after Hickok’s death. She is known for acts of charity and willingness to nurse the sick. In 1903, Calamity Jane died in the Terry mining camp, her dying wish, “Bury me beside Wild Bill” was carried out.

Calamity Jane’s grave at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The cemetery was established in1878 and actively used until 1949. There are some 3,627 people buried here including a children’s section with 350 who died in of scarlet fever and diphtheria epidemic 1878-1880; a Civil War section, a Jewish section (surprisingly large) and a Chinese section (there is even a Chinese altar and ceremonial oven), and several notable and colorful characters who are described in the guide with directions to their gravesites.

I am struck by the wrought iron gates at the entrance which have symbols representing the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Freemasonry and the Star of David. Indeed the name Mt. Moriah was chosen for its religious affiliation with both the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah (Mount Moriah is located within Jerusalem, the site of Solomon’s temple.)

It takes about an hour to visit. ($2/entrance, 108 Sherman St., Deadwood 57732, 605-578-2082, www.cityofdeadwood.com).

Deadwood, it turns out, was named for the dead timber on the surrounding hills, not for its shoot-outs. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills brought thousands of new people to the area. 

I get back down to the historic Main Street in plenty of time for the 6 pm “Main Street Shootout”, featuring a fantastic Calamity Jane character.

“Calamity Jane” cavorts with tourists on Deadwood’s Main Street before the shootout © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are free shows throughout the day on Historic Main Street (reminiscent of a theme park’s re-creation of a Wild West town): Deadwood’s True Tales; a 2 pm Main Street shootout; a Rootin’Tootin’ Card Game for kids and old-thyme musical show; Dr. Stan Dupt’s Travelin’ Medicine Show; 4 pm Main Street shootout; 4:30 Old Thym Hoe Down; 5:45 Deadwood’s True Tales on the steps of the historic Franklin Hotel.

Getting ready for the shoot out on Main Street, Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After the 6 pm shootout, I check out the shops and grab a burger with another couple from our bike tour who I meet up with on the street, and come back for the 7:30 pm “Capture of Jack McCall” outside Saloon 10 (there is the “original Saloon 10 where Wild Bill was actually shot).

From there, we all march up the street to the Masonic Temple for the 8 pm “Trial of Jack McCall”.

The Trial of Jack McCall has been performed regularly since 1925, one of the longest running plays in the nation but each night in Deadwood with new twists because of audience participation. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The Trial of Jack McCall” has been performed steadily, I am astonished to learn since 1925, making it one of the nation’s longest running plays. It began as an annual presentation during Statehood Days. The script is based on news accounts of the actual trial which took place in the mining camp of Deadwood after Jack McCall murdered James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Wild Bill was playing poker in Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon No. 10 and was shot in the back of the head while holding Aces and Eights, forever known as the “Dead Man’s Hand”. (People leave the cards at his grave.). Though based on fact, it is done with great humor (if a murder trial can be fun). “It has to be accurate,” any “Cookie” Mosher who plays John Swift, Clerk of the Courts and Executive Director of Deadwood Alive, tells me because Deadwood Alive, a nonprofit, is supported in part by Historical Preservation Society. (It reminds me of the “Cry Innocent,” recreation of a Salem Witch Trial, in Salem, Massachusetts).

They even recreate the edition of the Black Hills Pioneer which reported the story of Hickok’s murder, on August 3, 1876. “A dastardly murder was committed in Deadwood gulch yesterday afternoon. The fiendish murderer who shot him in the back is in jail. The dead man is Wild Bill Hickok, whose prowess with the pistols is known far and wide. Single-handed, he captured robbers and trouble makers in the south, at Dodge city, Abilene and Hays, Kansas, in Nebraska, in all the south. Men feared him, feared his quickness on the draw, the deadly and accurate aim which send more than one roustabout sprawling.

“But on this terrible, bloodstained afternoon in the wild gold camp of the Black Hills, Wild Bill never had a chance.”

A jury of “minors” at “The Trial of Jack McCall” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is a family-friendly show where the selected members of the audience participate in the performance serving as jurors in the trial- the jury of miners is made up of “minors” – kids who get to wear various hats and sit on a bench). The show is held nightly Monday through Saturday with the schedule as outlined below.

It proves extremely entertaining as a trial for murder could possibly be.

In 1876, Deadwood didn’t have a courthouse so the trial was held in Deadwood Theater (the narrator/court manager explains they have to wait for auditions to finish – so there is music provided by Calamity Jane as the audience files in. The theater was tearing down from the previous week’s show and getting ready for the next, so you see various props.The trial was held just the day after McCall’s arrest.

“Jack McCall” takes the stand in his trial , recreated nightly in Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A boy is given the role of sheriff; wearing an oversized cowboy hat, he seems just itching to shoot the toy gun he hold on McCall.

They call “witnesses” and John Swift, the clerk of Courts (played by Mosher) goes into the audience and pulls somebody up – then after jokes (swearing on “Bartenders Guide” instead of bible), “sneaks” them a script. He grabs a guy as a witness who is wearing shorts so he puts shawl over his leg for modesty; he grabs a woman to play McCall’s’ employer and pretends to flirt.  (It’s very Shakespearean the way they go in/out of character and talk to audience.)

Audience participation makes “The Trial of Jack McCall” especially entertaining. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One witness says Wild Bill asked him to move his chair so Wild Bill could sit with his back to wall, and he refused.

The “minors” on the jury pretend to sleep during Defense’s summation.

As in real life, McCall was found Not Guilty. Then, in an epilogue, the Clerk relates that McCall was driven from town but bragged about killing Wild Bill over a game of cards. The federal government said that because the crime was committed in Indian Country the feds still had jurisdiction to try McCall without violating the rule against double jeopardy. McCall was rearrested in 1877, got a new trial, was found guilty and hanged.

Deadwood Alive has been entertaining visitors for over 20 years with Main Street shootouts and regular performances of the Trial of Jack McCall. The Deadwood Alive troupe of superb actors consists of over 10 characters and provide entertainment throughout the year including daily shootouts, guided walking tours, musical performances and the famous Trial of Jack McCall. Deadwood Alive is managed by a non-profit board of directors and employs up to a dozen individuals each summer to re-enact several historically accurate incidents of Deadwood’s past and make a visit to Deadwood so entertaining for people of all ages (($6 adults, $5 seniors, $3 children, 800-344-8826, www.deadwoodalive.com).

The actual Saloon No. 10 where Wild Bill Hickok was killed by Jack McCall while holding a poker hand of Aces and Eights, forever known as the “Dead Man’s Hand”. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I enjoy the charm of the Main Street. I stop in to the Franklin Hotel, opened since 1903, a beautiful, elegant hotel, now with a casino in the lobby.

Deadwood actually offers a lot of history and attractions, which unfortunately, I do not have time to experience): The Adams Museum (554 Sherman St); Days of ’76 Museum (18 Seventy Six Dr), and Historic Adams House (22 Van Buren St.). (DeadwoodHistory.com, 605-722-4800).

Deadwood preserves its Wild West charm © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

More visitor information at Deadwood South Dakota, 800-344-8826,www.deadwood.com.

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

_________________________

© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Badlands & Black Hills, Buffalos & Bikes: Close Encounters with Wildlife in South Dakota’s Custer State Park

A herd of buffalo (bison) take over a field just outside the Custer State Park Visitor Center, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I didn’t think I could be wowed more than yesterday’s bike ride along the Mickelson Trail to the Crazy Horse Memorial. But today’s ride through South Dakota’s Custer State Park, starting on the Needles Highway, and riding the Wildlife Loop for incredibly close encounters with the state’s famous animal life, finishing at a rustic (but luxurious) lodge in the woods, is over the moon.

The Wilderness Voyageurs guides shuttle us in the van from the town of Custer to Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park to start our ride through South Dakota’s first and, at 71,000 acres, its largest state park. Like the town, its namesake is the infamous Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, who in addition to being the army commander who brutally fought Indians (meeting his master at the Battle of Little Big Horn), was an “explorer and fortune hunter”. In 1874, Custer found gold in these Black Hills, prompting a mad gold rush that resulted in the Indians being displaced from their sacred lands. But be that as it may, the park, which preserves and protects the precious buffalo (actually American bison), and so much more, seems a measure of justice.

Family goes off for rock climbing at Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The scenery is spectacular, beginning with this first view of the enchanting Sylvan Lake. There is the Sylvan Lake Lodge (35 Lodge rooms, 31 cabins and a specialty “Cathedral Spires Cabin” that sleeps 20), one of a few lodges in the park, a superb hub for people who have come to fish, kayak, hike, rock climb or like us, bike through Custer State Park and the fabulous Wildlife Loop.

Biking along the Needles Highway, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We bike along the Needles Highway. “14 miles of winding turns, granite spires and rock tunnels, the Needles Highway is a marvel of engineering,” a marker reads. “Peter Norbeck [South Dakota’s first governor, U.S. senator and a conservationist] walked and rode the future highway on horseback, laying out a route many deemed impossible.

“Norbeck asked his engineer, Scovel Johnson, ‘Scovel, can you build a road through here?’ Scovel answered, ‘If you can furnish me enough dynamite.’ It took 150,000 pounds of the explosive, and the highway was opened in 1922.”

Before long, we find ourselves in the midst of a section known as The Needles, with monster spires (fantastic for rock climbing).

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride through the Needles Eye tunnel – carved just wide and high enough to accommodate the van (they have to take off the bikes) and soon after, the Cathedral Spires. The breathtaking scenery makes you contemplate your place in the natural world.

Needles Eye Tunnel, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

James Oerding is the guide today (while John Buehlhorn drives the van), and once again, I am last, lingering to take in the view, which means that James pretty much accompanies me. James is a master wildlife spotter and sees a pair of mountain goats on a spire and then we see their kid they are trying to convince to jump across a cavern between the spires. They seem genuinely puzzled how to get down, though I can’t figure out how they got up to this promontory in the first place.

Mountain goats, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We find a place where we can climb down to get a better view.

James let’s me bike at my own pace and doesn’t hurry me along.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

No sooner does the landscape change completely from the tall spires to plains, than we come across a whole herd of buffalo (actually, American bison) just where we get to the Visitor Center, where John has lunch for us. Traffic has stopped where the bison have chosen to cross the road.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There seem to be a hundred bison gathered on a large field just in front of the Visitor Center, and people are casually picnicking (like us) within arm’s length – a surreal scene for a city kid.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Custer State Park Visitor Center is a stunning modern building, offering an array of exhibits, including a large interactive map, a 20-foot scale model of the Cathedral Spires and displays describing the natural world of the Park – as well as warnings about how not to interact with the bison (a bison can run 35 mph; if it lifts its tail, it is getting into fighting position; bison communicate to the herd with their tail). There is a wonderfully comfortable theater which offers a not to be missed 20-minute film narrated by Kevin Costner who reminds us that this was the very land (in fact used in the film) of “Dances With Wolves.”

“The buffalo – tatanka – are an enduring symbol of the Old West symbolizing abundance, strength, power and an enduring symbol of Indian culture.”

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the Lakota language, the word “tatanka” is translated as “buffalo” or “buffalo bull.” But native Lakota speakers say the literal translation is more like “He who owns us.”

“The Lakota and other tribes believed that a white buffalo is the most sacred living thing on earth. … The American buffalo or bison is a symbol of abundance and manifestation.  Tatanka is the root of all life.”

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At Custer State Park, “the spirit is Tatanka,” the film intones. “71,000 acres….towering granite spires… an incredible American landscape. Choose your own path.”

The park sits between Crazy Horse Memorial at one corner, Mount Rushmore National Memorial at the other.

The park’s history dates back to 1897; but it was officially named a state park in 1919; the Needles Highway was completed in 1922; by 1924, the bison herd totaled 100. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge and his wife spent three months at the Game Lodge. The park was expanded in the 1930s as part of FDR’s government works projects and became one of largest state parks in the United States. By 1966, the park received 1 million visitors; now, some 2 million visitors come each year.

A buffalo wallows in the dirt, creating a natural topographical depression in the flat prairie land that holds rain water and runoff, and helps mix the nutrients in the soil. Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The park has played a vital role in saving the American bison. There were 30-60 million bison roaming North America in the 1500s when Europeans first arrived; by the late 1880s-1890s, fewer than 1000 were left. In the early 1900s, the Yellowstone herd was protected; then the Custer State Park herd. In 1914, 36 bison were purchased and by 1924, the herd totaled 100. Today, there are some 500,000 bison in North America, with 400 born a year here at Custer State Park.

Each September, there is a Buffalo Roundup which this year, brought out over 19,440 visitors for the 54th Annual roundup, to watch as 60 horseback riders wrangle the herd of 1,400 bison into corrals for their annual health check. The annual roundup helps the park manage its herd; some 445 bison are sold at the annual auction. The park also hosts a three-day arts festival in conjunction with the roundup. (Upcoming Buffalo Roundups will be held on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, and Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.)

From here, we get back onto the road to bike on Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Encompassing 71,000 acres in the Black Hills, Custer State Park, is one of the best places in North America to see a range of animals in their natural habitat.

Along the Wildlife Loop, there are buffalo (bison), deer, elk, pronghorn antelope (the fastest land animal on the Continent; 12 pronghorn were brought here in 1914), burros, yellow-bellied marmot, prairie dogs, big horn sheep – native to Black Hills – unique in Custer State Park. And before the end of day, we will see just about every one.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just beyond the visitor center, where the herd has now moved on from the field, all the cars are stopped in both directions to allow the bison to cross the road. I put myself between two cars which I think will give me some protection.

I’ve never been in a situation like this, so close to these fearsome creatures without any barrier between (well except for the time I biked in tall grass in the tiger reserve in India). I am in their habitat.

Bison are the largest terrestrial animal in North America, standing up to six feet tall. A male can weigh upwards of a ton and a female can weigh 900 pounds, according to the National Wildlife Foundation. Bison fight by crashing their massive heads or horns together. Both male and female bison have short, curved, black horns, which can grow to two feet long. American bison like to live and travel in groups. For most of the year herds are divided by sex, with females and calves in one herd and males in another herd. When the breeding season begins in the summer, many males temporarily join the female herd and begin looking for a mate. 

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Standing on the road, waiting for the buffalo to cross the road, is an opportunity to study their behavior. It occurs to me as I watch, that unlike dolphin which seem to show great emotion with their expressions and interactions, the buffalo don’t seem to have the means to show emotion, except perhaps a flick of a tail or their blue tongue. I wonder how one seems to emerge as a leader that the rest follow.

It strikes me how little interest or interaction there is among buffalo – except for a mother close with her calf, the buffalo don’t seem to have any connection, communication with each other, except all facing same direction and walk almost together. They all turn in one direction and move in one direction – who is leader? How is the leader selected?  I later learn that one way they communicate is with their tails.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It turns out that bison, who are almost constantly moving, actually vote on the direction they will travel, orienting their bodies in the direction they would like to go, and eventually choosing to follow an “initiator”; they communicate through grunts and growls, from smells and hearing, I subsequently learn from Scientific American.

Prairie dogs play an important role in the ecology of the prairie. Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are also mountain lions in the park (we don’t get to see any), which are monitored with radio-collars and tranquilized for routine medical testing. James tells me that once he came upon the medical staff tranquilizing a mountain lion in order to take its vitals.

We’re going up where?? Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Now we come to the toughest ride of the trip – of the 39 miles we bike today, it seems three-quarters are uphill; there are lots of long, steep ascents and sweeping downhills too. This is the difference between a road and a rail trail. I plug through.

At one point, I lose momentum altogether and wind up walking the bike the equivalent of a city block and am annoyed with myself. But I make the remaining ascents, including the final half mile steep, corkscrew rise at mile 37 to the Blue Bell Lodge. I have a strategy of stopping where the road levels a bit, then resetting my concentration. (The van is available to drive people who choose not to bike.)

Blue Bell Lodge, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Lodge is so beautiful – 30 gorgeous log cabins among the pines (a specialty Ponderosa Cabin accommodates 20).

I have my own cabin – fireplace, deer head, two double beds, dining table/chairs, tv, kitchenette, porch with 3 chairs. Heaven.

Blue Bell Lodge, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wilderness-Voyageurs makes all of this it possible – you couldn’t do this itinerary on your own because it isn’t contiguous. They shuttle us to starting and ending points so we have the best route. We aren’t carrying our own gear from inn to inn.

The guides, James Oerding and John Buehlhorn, make a big difference – their knowledge not only of the trail, the route, but the places we will experience, the animals and sites we see, down to lunch recommendations. And SOOOO helpful – like father hens.

Good humored, patient, interesting. “You’re on vacation,” they say. They don’t rush us along or show impatience if we are slow or stop a lot. And they cheer us on to get through the touch climbs. Not only in their knowledge and experience but extremely helpful, patient, kind, considerate – go out of way to help guests – which is really clear this day. Van is there to help if necessary.

The trip is organized with pit stops, snacks, breakfasts and most lunches and hosted dinners, (just one lunch and two dinners on our own) as well as the admissions to sites.

Tonight, we dine at the Blue Bell Lodge’s Tatanka Dining Room (locally known as the Blue Bell Lodge Dining Room) – a lovely western themed (obviously) room. We order what we like from the menu (booze is on our own), which has some distinct items: rattle snake and buffalo sausage (tasty!); buffalo tenderloin.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The historic Blue Bell Lodge was originally a hunting lodge for friends- named (it is believed) for the telephone company, now run by Regency Hotel Management. A nightly chuck wagon dinner is offered that goes out 5-8 pm, with a ride to the valley; live music, dinner, dancing, for as many as 100 people.

Horsing around at the Blue Bell Lodge, Custer State Park, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.

I stay behind at the lodge to look at my email when I get a call from James telling me a giant buffalo is just off the path in the pitch darkness. I see it when a car comes by and lights up the buffalo.

James offers to drive the van over to pick me up – I insist on finding a way to walk the short distance, and he tries talking me through but I have trouble  finding  the path. Finally, I find the path and see James and John walking over to rescue me.

The stars are gorgeous. I can see the Milky Way.

The lodge and Custer State Park, are open year-round. I can imagine how spectacular it is in winter.

(Open year round, Custer State Park, 13329 US Highway 16A, Custer, SD 57730, https://gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park/ 605-255-4515,  800-710-2267. CusterStatePark@state.sd.us)

Day 5: Finishing the Mickelson Trail in Deadwood

I wake up early to sit on the porch of my cabin at the Blue Bell Lodge with a book and a cup of coffee, thinking this is the ultimate in luxury, but the peace of the moment is soon broken when I spy the buffalo from last night right outside. It lumbers toward my porch and takes a drink from a puddle.

Buffalo strolls by my cabin at Blue Bell Lodge, flicking its blue tongue (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

James and John – not wanting to chance any confrontation with the buffalo – call us to tell us they will drive the van to pick each of us up at our cabins at 8 am. We drive back to Custer for breakfast at a cute café before starting today’s bike ride.

Day 5 of the Wilderness Voyageurs Badlands and Mickelson Trail tour is our final day on the Mickelson Trail. We ride the last miles all the way to Deadwood, a true wild west town made famous by the murder of Wild Bill Hickok.

Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are shuttled back to Mystic where we left the trail two days ago, and ride 18 miles up hill, and then down the slope, for a total of 34 miles to end of Mickelson at Deadwood, at mile 109.

Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Coyote spotted off the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

John comes to pick us up with the van, making back-and-forth trips from the trailhead to our hotel, the Deadwood Mountain Grand Resort, which has an enormous casino (it seems fitting for a town that was born out of the gold rush and made famous by a poker game).

We are on our own to explore Deadwood and discover its many charms. Fortunately, I’ve had some tips from the Alex Johnson Hotel manager in Rapid City, and head straight out to the cemetery.

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

_________________________

© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Discovering Marvels of Crazy Horse Memorial on Badlands, Black Hills & Mickelson Trail Bike Tour

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Crazy Horse Memorial is sensational, awesome and profound. The carved portrait in the cliff-side, which I first encounter by surprise as I bike on the Mickelson Trail between Custer and Hill City is spectacular enough, but there is so much more to discover. There is also a superb Museum of Native Americans of North America (it rivals the Smithsonian’s Museum in Washington DC) where you watch a terrific video that tells the story of the America’s indigenous people, and can visit the studio/home of the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski. It is the highlight of our third day of the Wilderness Voyageurs “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour of South Dakota.

I rush to join a tour (a modest extra fee) that brings us right to the base of the sculpture. You look into this extraordinary, strong face – some quartz on the cheek has a glint that suggests a tear.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Only then do I realize that, much to my surprise, seeing the scaffolding and equipment, that 70 years after sculptor Ziolkowski started carving the monument in 1947, his grandson is leading a crew to continue carving. Right now it is mainly a bust – albeit the largest stone carving in the world – but as we see in the museum, the completed sculpture will show Crazy Horse astride a horse, his arm outstretched toward the lands that were taken from the Lakota.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At 87 ft 6 inches high, the Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest mountain carving in progress. They are now working on the 29-foot high horse’s head, the 263-foot long arm, and 33 ft-high hand, the guide tells us. The horse’s head will be as tall as 22-story building, one-third larger than any of the President’s at Mount Rushmore. The next phase of progress on the Mountain involves carving Crazy Horse’s left hand, left forearm, right shoulder, hairline, and part of the horse’s mane and head over 10-15 years. The plan is to carve the back side of the rock face as well, which would make the Crazy Horse Memorial a three-sided monument.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When completed, the Crazy Horse Mountain carving will be the world’s largest sculpture, measuring 563 feet high by 641 feet long, carved in the round. The nine-story high face of Crazy Horse was completed on June 3, 1998; work began on the 22-story high horse’s head soon after.

“One if hardest decisions (after two years of planning) was to start with head, not the horse (in other words, work way down),” the guide tells us.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In 71 years of construction, there have been no deaths or life threatening injuries of the workers (though there was that accident when a guy driving a machine slipped off edge; his father told him he had to get the machine out himself.)

Four of Korczak and Ruth’s 10 children and three of his grandchildren still work at the Memorial.

On the bus ride back to the visitor center, the guide tells us that Zioklowski was a decorated World War II veteran who was wounded on D-Day, but was so devoted to the Crazy Horse Memorial, he even planned for his death: there is a tomb in a cave at the base of the monument..

Back at the visitor center/museum, the story about the Crazy Horse Memorial is told in an excellent film:

The overwhelming theme is to tell the story, to give a positive view of native culture, to show that Native Americans have their own heroes, and to restore and build a legacy that survived every attempt to blot it out in a form of genocide.

There were as many as 18 million Indians living in North America when the Europeans arrived (the current population is 7 million in the US). “These Black Hills are our Cathedral, our sacred land,” the film says.

Crazy Horse was an Ogala Lakota, born around 1840 on the edge of Black Hills. He was first called “Curly” but after proving himself in battle, earned his father’s name, “Crazy Horse” (as in “His Horse is Crazy”). The chief warned of encroaching “river” of settlers, leading to 23-years of Indian wars. In 1876 Crazy Horse led the battle against General Custer, the Battle of Little Big Horn (known as Custer’s Last Stand, but Indians call it “the Battle of Greasy Grass”). It was a victory for the Indians, but short-lived. Soon after, the US government rounded up the rebels and killed Crazy Horse while he was in custody at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. (See www.nps.gov/libi/learn/historyculture/crazy-horse.htm)

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am introduced to a new hero: Standing Bear.

Standing Bear was born 1874 near Pierre, South Dakota, and was among the first Indian children sent away to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania where his name was randomly changed to “Henry.” In the school, their Indian identity was forcibly removed – they cut the boys’ hair, they were not allowed to speak their language “to best help them learn the ways of non-native.”

“As a result of attending Carlisle, Standing Bear concluded that in order to best help his people, it would be necessary for him to learn the ways of the non-Native world. Somewhat ironically, Carlisle – an institution that was designed to assimilate Native Americans out of their indigenous ways – became a source of inspiration that Standing Bear would repeatedly draw upon to shape his enlightened understanding of cross-cultural relationships, as well as to find new ways of preserving his people’s culture and history.” He honed leadership skills like public speaking, reasoning, and writing, realizing that because of the changing times, the battle for cultural survival would no longer be waged with weapons, but with words and ideas. “This realization became a driving force behind much of his work during his adult life and led him to become a strong proponent of education,” the background material on the Crazy Horse Memorial website explains (crazyhorsememorial.org).

Standing Bear attended night school in Chicago while he worked for the Sears Roebuck Company to pay for his schooling. With feet firmly placed in both worlds, he became heavily involved in the affairs of his people over the course of his life and politically astute —working with Senator Francis Case and serving as a member of the South Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. He led the initiative to honor President Calvin Coolidge with a traditional name – “Leading Eagle,” taking the opportunity for advocacy during the naming ceremony to challenge President Coolidge to take up the leadership role that had been previously filled by highly-respected leaders such as Sitting Bull and Red Cloud.

In 1933, Standing Bear learned of a monument to be constructed at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, to honor his maternal cousin, Crazy Horse, who was killed there in 1877. He wrote to the organizer that he and fellow Lakota leaders were promoting a carving of Crazy Horse in the sacred Paha Sapa – Black Hills.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Standing Bear looked for an artist with the skill to carve the memorial to his people that would show Indians had heroes too and turned to Korczak Ziolkowski, a self-taught sculptor who had assisted at Mount Rushmore and had gained recognition at the 1939 World’s Fair. Standing Bear invited him back to the Black Hills. 

Born in Boston of Polish descent in 1908, Korczak was orphaned when he was one year old. He grew up in a series of foster homes and is said to have been badly mistreated.  He gained skills in heavy construction helping his foster father.

On his own at 16, Korczak took odd jobs to put himself through Rindge Technical School in Cambridge, MA, after which he became an apprentice patternmaker in the shipyards on the rough Boston waterfront. He experimented with woodworking, making beautiful furniture. At age 18, he handcrafted a grandfather clock from 55 pieces of Santa Domingo mahogany. Although he never took a lesson in art or sculpture, he studied the masters and began creating plaster and clay studies. In 1932, he used a coal chisel to carve his first portrait, a marble tribute to Judge Frederick Pickering Cabot, the famous Boston juvenile judge who had befriended and encouraged the gifted boy and introduced him to the world of fine arts.

Moving to West Hartford, Conn., Korczak launched a successful studio career doing commissioned sculpture throughout New England, Boston, and New York.

Ziolkowski wanted to do something worthwhile with his sculpture, and made the Crazy Horse Memorial his life’s work.

“Crazy Horse has never been known to have signed a treaty or touched the pen,” Ziolkowski wrote. “Crazy Horse, as far as the scale model is concerned, is to be carved not so much as a lineal likeness, but more as a memorial to the spirit of Crazy Horse – to his people. With his left hand gesturing forward in response to the derisive question asked by a white man, ‘Where are your lands now?’ He replied, ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried’.”

There is no known photo of Crazy Horse, Ziolkowski created his likeness from oral descriptions.

He built a log studio home (which we can visit) at a time when there was nothing around – no roads, no water, no electricity. For the first seven years, he had to haul himself and his equipment, including a decompressor and 50 pound box of dynamite, up 741 steps.

Living completely isolated in the wilderness, Korczak and his wife Ruth bought an 1880s one-room school house, had it moved to this isolated property and hired a teacher for their 10 children.

There is so much to see here: The Museums of Crazy Horse Memorial feature exhibits and engaging experiences that let you discover Native history and contemporary life, the art and science of mountain carving and the lives of the Ziolkowski family.  

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

THE INDIAN MUSEUM OF NORTH AMERICA® houses an enormous collection of art and artifacts reflecting the diverse histories and cultures of over 300 Native Nations.  The Museum, designed to complement the story being told in stone on the Mountain, presents the lives of American Indians and preserves Native Culture for future generations. The Museum collection started with a single display donated in 1965 by Charles Eder, Hunkpapa Lakota, from Montana, which  remains on display to this day.  The Indian Museum has about the same number of annual visits as the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. Close to 90% of the art and artifacts have been donated by generous individuals, including many Native Americans.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The gorgeous building housing the Museum was designed and built by Korczak Ziolkowski and his family in the harsh winter of 1972-73, when no work was possible on the Mountain. The Museum incorporated Korczak’s love of wood and natural lighting, being constructed from ponderosa pine, harvested and milled at Crazy Horse Memorial. The original wing of the museum was dedicated on May 30, 1973. In the early 1980s, Korczak planned a new wing of the Museum to accommodate the growing collection of artifacts. He did not live to see his plans realized, instead his wife Ruth Ziolkowski and 7 of their children made sure the new wing was built. The structure was built in the winter of 1983-84 and funding came in large part from a $60,000 check left in the Crazy Horse Memorial contribution box in late August of 1983. The contributor said he was moved by the purpose of Crazy Horse, Korczak, and his family’s great progress and by the sculptor’s reliance on free enterprise and refusal to take federal funds

The Ziolkowski Family Life Collection is shown throughout the complex and demonstrates to people of all ages the timeless values of making a promise and keeping it, setting a goal and never giving up, working hard to overcome adversity, and devoting one’s life to something much larger than oneself. There are portraits of the couple and personal effects that tell their life’s story.

Portraits of Korczak and Ruth Ziolkowski, Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Mountain Carving Gallery shares the amazing history of carving the Mountain. It features the tools Korczak used in the early years of carving, including a ½ size replica of “the bucket” – a wooden basket used with an aerial cable car run by an antique Chevy engine that allowed the sculptor to haul equipment and tools up the Mountain. Displayed in the Mountain Carving Room are the measuring models used to carve the face of Crazy Horse, plasters of Crazy Horse’s face and the detailed pictorial progression of carving the face. They also detail the next phase in the Memorial’s carving which is focused on Crazy Horse’s left hand and arm, the top of Crazy Horse’s head, his hairline, and the horse’s mane. If you stand in just the right spot, you can line up the model of how the finished work will look against the actual mountain sculpture as it is.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Crazy Horse Memorial is actually a private, nonprofit (they also have a nonprofit college and medical training center that educates Indians), and twice turned down federal funding because “they didn’t believe the government would do it right.” Indeed, Mount Rushmore (which we see on the last day of our bike tour) was never completed because the federal government stopped funding the project. The entrance fee ($30 per car, 3 or more people, $24 per car two people, $12 per person, $7 per bicycle or motorcycle) support the continued carving, the Indian Museum of North America and the Indian University of North America, which assists qualifying students get their college degrees.

Once again, I am so grateful that I am not being pushed along with an artificial time limit by the Wilderness Voyageurs guides, I wander through the vast complex trying to take it all in. I am utterly fascinated.

I buy postcards for 25c apiece and stamps, sit with a (free) cup of coffee in the cafe and mail them at their tiny post-office. There is an excellent gift shop.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is open 365 days of the year, with various seasonal offerings.

(Crazy Horse Memorial, 12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, SD, 605-673-4681, crazyhorsememorial.org.)

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I’m the last one to leave the Crazy Horse Memorial, and note that the bike of our sweeper guide for today John Buehlhorn, is still on the rack, but I figure he will see that I have gone and catch up to me, so I get back on the Mickelson Trail. He catches me again when I don’t realize to get off the trail at Hill City, where we are on our own for lunch and exploring the town.

South Dakota State Railroad Museum, Hill City, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Hill City is really charming and the home of the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, where you can take a ride on an old-time steam railroad. The shops are really pleasant.

The Wilderness Voyageurs van is parked there in case anybody needs anything.

Hill City, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The ride to the Crazy Horse Memorial was uphill on the rail trail for 8 miles but going down hill isn’t a picnic because of the loose gravel – but not difficult and totally enjoyable.  We ride through train tunnels and over trestles. It is no wonder that the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, which is a centerpiece of the Wilderness Voyageurs’ tour, is one of 30 rail-trails to have been named to the Hall of Fame by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.  We finish this day’s ride at Mystic at the 74.7-mile marker– we’ll ride the remaining miles on another day. Mystic used to be a significant town when the railroad ran here. Now there are just two buildings and four residents.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, Mystic, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I notice the sign tacked up at the shelter: Be Aware: Mountain Lions spotted on the trail toward Rochford within the last few days.

We are shuttled back to Custer for our second night’s stay at the Holiday Inn Express (very comfortable, with pool, game room, WiFi and breakfast), and treated to a marvelous dinner at one of the finer dining restaurants, the Sage Creek Grill (611 Mount Rushmore Road, Custer).

Sage Creek Grill, Custer, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

There are still a few spots left on Wilderness Voyageurs’ Quintessential West Cuba Bike Tour departing on March 21.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com.

_________________________© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visitgoingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions toFamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Badlands, Black Hills & Mickelson Trail Bike Tour Offers Unexpected Experience on Guest Ranch

Note the slope at the end of the gravel road up to the Circle View Guest Ranch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The steep gravel road to the Circle View Guest Ranch proves too much as I slip and slide with my hybrid bike and I wind up walking the bike a short distance (only one of us managed to ride it), at the end of our 28 mile ride through the Badlands National Park, South Dakota on this first day of our six-day Wilderness Voyageurs bike tour. The guest ranch, set on a mesa surrounded by 3,000 acres, with beautiful views, is delightful. I drop my bags in my room, wonderfully decorated in a Western motif, and go out just in time to see 11-year old Katie Kruse feeding chickens and her brother, 10-year old Jacob, being chased by an aggressive calf anxious to get at the bottle he is using to feed it.

Young guests at Circle View Ranch get to bottle feed a calf © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 A stay on a guest ranch in South Dakota, just beyond the entrance to Badlands National Park and adjacent to Indian lands, is an unexpected bonus experience of our six-day “Mickelson Trail and the Badlands” bike tour of South Dakota.

Philip Kruse was born and raised on the ranch and opened it to guests in 2000 to give visitors “a glimpse into life on a real, family run cattle ranch.” It is very much all of that.

Katie shows me where 17 eggs have been “hidden” by the hens to prevent them from being taken by the farmer so they can hatch. The secret nest had been hidden by high grass and only revealed when the grass was cut. The hen had apparently walked off to get some water, revealing the eggs. Katie lifts up one of the eggs – I can still feel the warmth.

“Sometimes they hide an egg in a tree and abandon it. Sometimes you will see one chicken with 10 chicks following. They sneak in to lay eggs that won’t be collected.” On the other hand, the hens that do hatch the chicks aren’t necessarily maternal. “They don’t show the young ones where the water is.”

I am amazed to contemplate the strategy and teamwork that these hens, which we assume are just dumb creatures, to create a collective nest, hide it from the farmer, and designate one of the hens to sit on it.

Now the farmer uses his wits to outwit the hens. “We don’t want the chickens to hatch their own because we will not have control over whether they have roosters or infertile chickens. So in the night when they sleep, we will steal an egg and replace it with a hatched chick so she will think it is hers.”

There’s a pecking order, she tells me. The older, bigger hens sleep on top; younger ones on the floor. She says that young chicks lay one egg a day; older ones lay fewer and fewer, maybe one in two or three days.

“Here, we don’t kill the hen when gets old but another lady butchers them – after she chops off the head, they can still run around for 5 minutes – she has machine that spins to take off feathers.”

I find all of this utterly fascinating.

Burros on the Circle View Guest Ranch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I watch how aggressive the calf is chasing after Jacob who is trying to bottle feed it. The calf was born prematurely and would have been abandoned by its mother. There are a slew of chicks and peacocks all about, as well. And burros.

We enjoy a sensational dinner prepared by Amy Kruse, served family style along long tables inside and outside on the porch. Tonight’s menu is Mexican tacos, prepared with such fresh ingredients including cherry tomatoes from the garden as sweet as candy.

At Circle View Guest Ranch, see a hen defying farmer by sitting on secret nest with 17 eggs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next morning before breakfast, I walk out to see if the hen is sitting on the nest. Sure enough. But as I walk back, my head in my notepad, I look up to see a crowd of kids frantically gesticulating at me and yelling, pointing to my right. As I move, they stop, so I keep moving in that direction. I assume they are directing me to watch them feed the chickens. No, they are warning me not to walk up the path because there is a rattlesnake that had been discovered by their dog. “That’s why we wear cowboy boots,” 10-year old Jacob tells me. “Rattlesnakes can’t bite through.”

Later at breakfast, Philip Kruse, shows me his jar two-thirds filled with rattlesnake rattles (they are only about an inch long and quarter inch wide) collected over two generations on the ranch.

10-year old Jacob bottle feeds a calf at the Circle View Ranch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The breakfast that Amy Kruse prepares is a triumph: fresh eggs from the farm (of course), whole wheat blueberry pancakes, tater tots with bacon, white chocolate and raspberry scones (sensational), granola made of sour cherry, pistachios, vanilla yogurt.

We get to experience much of what the Circle View Guest Ranch offers – free wifi, beautifully appointed rooms, seeing the various animals, feeding chickens, including burros, enjoying scrumptious breakfast (included) and dinner, access to the guest kitchen, and the game room. But we don’t have the time to really experience all it offers longer staying guests: horseback rides, bon fires, hunting rocks and fossils, and exploring the 3,000 acres. There are also cabins including an original 1880 Homestead cabin.

Western vibe at the Circle View Guest Ranch, Badlands, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But even with this short stay, it gives us a first-hand glimpse at family life on a ranch.

The ranch is open year-round, as is Badlands National Park.

Circle View Guest Ranch, 20055 E. Highway 44, Interior, South Dakota 57780, 605-433-5582, www.circleviewranch.com, cvgrphil@gwtc.net.

Biking the George S. Mickelson Trail 

Biking the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s just the second day of our six-day “Mickelson Trail and the Badlands” bike tour. We pile into the van and are shuttled from Badlands National Park to the George S. Mickelson Trail. Over the course of our trip, we will ride the whole 109 miles of the rail-trail. Today, instead of starting at mile “0” in Edgemont and riding uphill to Custer, we start at the Harbach Park Trailhead in Custer (mile 44.5) and bike mostly down a slope to Edgemont (mile 0), where we are picked up and shuttled back to Custer for the night.

Such different landscape today from biking the Badlands – we ride through a pine forest with the smell of pine.

Scenes along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Minnekahta, where we have an amazing lunch that our guide, James Oerding, pulls out of the van and sets up under a lean-to (28 miles into the ride) at the rest stop, is just off the highway that looks just like the country road in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “North by Northwest” – that famous scene of Cary Grant running from the crop duster that is trying to kill him. There is even the same sound of silence broken by the wind and growing scream of a truck as it comes out of the distance and barrels down road. There is that long view of the road disappearing into the horizon, white clouds in blue sky, hay bales in the fields on either side (in the movie, they were corn fields). Surreal. I still wonder if this is the very location where Hitchcock filmed that scene.

Highway evokes scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” which was filmed in the area © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Lunch stop on the Mickelson Trail at Minnekahta Trailhead © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Railroads opened up the Black Hills. The 109-mile long Mickelson Trail is built on the historic Deadwood to Edgemont Burlington Northern rail line that passes through the Black Hills and was abandoned in 1983. Work started in 1991 and the full trail was dedicated in 1998. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Mickelson Trail is wonderfully maintained – mostly crushed limestone – with rest facilities and water cisterns along the way and great signage. On this first day, we are immersed in ranch land with broad vistas, dramatic cloud formations, hay bales, cows.

Custer relishes its frontier heritage © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From Edgemont, we are shuttled back to Custer, a pleasant, modest Western town, with art of decorated bison on many corners. We will be here for two nights at the Holiday Inn Express. Tonight we are on our own for dinner, but tomorrow we will be hosted at a fine-dining restaurant.

Custer relishes its frontier heritage © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next morning, Day 3 of our trip, we ride out from the hotel directly onto the Mickelson Trail at Harbach Park Trailhead (thankfully, our guide, John Buehlhorn, has caught me again going onto a wrong spur and bringing me back to the trail).

We are now in the Black Hills National Forest – a lot of trees with black bark, which I presume gives the forest its name.

From Custer, we bike along the Mickelson Trail, 8 miles up a gentle grade (one of the advantages of a rail trail versus a road which can have much steeper slopes and corkscrew turns), with lovely scenery, beautiful rock formations, grassy plain and pine trees, when all of a sudden, the Crazy Horse Memorial comes into view. I am entranced by it when John, the Wilderness Voyageurs guide, again catches me missing the turnoff for us to ride to the Memorial for our visit. (Biking up the very steep hill proves the most challenging part of the day, and I am delighted with myself that I make it.)

That first view of the Crazy Horse Memorial from the Mickelson Trail is mesmerizing © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial is a revelation.

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

There are still a few spots left on Wilderness Voyageurs’ Quintessential West Cuba Bike Tour departing onMarch 21 (yes, Americans can still visit Cuba).

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

_________________________

© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Biking through the Badlands is Voyage of Discovery Millions of Years in the Making

Badlands National Park, South Dakota is 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires and the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

My first look at Badlands National Park is not anything I expected or visualized. The Pinnacles entrance to the national park, where the Wilderness Voyageurs guides have taken us for our first ride of the six-day “Badlands and Black Hills” bike tour of South Dakota, is aptly named for the spires that form this otherworldly landscape.

Badlands National Park is 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires and the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States. The Badlands Wilderness Area covers 64,000 acres, where they are reintroducing the black-footed ferret, the most endangered land mammal in North America. Just beyond is The Stronghold Unit, co-managed with the Oglala Sioux Tribe where there are sites of the 1890s Ghost Dances. But as I soon learn, Badlands National Park contains the world’s richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds, dating 23 to 35 million years old, a period between dinosaurs and hominids.

Badlands, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The name “Badlands” was intentional, for the earliest inhabitants and settlers found the extremes of climate and landscape extremely harsh. The American Lakota called this place “mako sica,” or “land bad” and early French trappers called it “les mauvaises terres a traverser,” both meaning “badlands.” Those very same French trappers would be the first of many Europeans who would, in time, supplant the indigenous people, as they were soon followed by soldiers, miners looking to strike it rich with gold, cattlemen, farmers, and homesteaders recruited from as far away as Europe.

We get our bikes which our guides – James Oerding and John Buehlhorn – make sure are properly fitted, and outfit us with helmet, water bottle, Garmin. They orient us to the day’s ride – essentially biking through the national park on the road (“Don’t stop riding as you go over the cattle guards”; when the van comes up alongside, tap our helmet if we need help or give a thumbs up otherwise). We will meet up at the 8.2 mile mark where there is a nature walk and the van will be set up for lunch. 

Setting out on our Wilderness Voyageurs bike trip through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And then we are off at our own pace down an exquisite road (the cars are not a problem). That is a mercy because the vistas are so breathtaking, I keep stopping for photos. And then there are unexpected sightings – like bighorn sheep.

At the 8.2 mile mark, we gather at the van where James has set out a gourmet lunch.

There is a boardwalk nature trail (I note the sign that warns against rattlesnakes and wonder about the kids who are climbing the mounds with abandon). I realize I am in time for a talk with Ranger Mark Fadrowski, who has with him original fossils and casts of fossils collected from the Badlands for us to look at and touch. We can see more – and even scientists working at the Fossil Prep Lab – at the Visitor Center further along our route.

Badlands, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“There are no dinosaurs here,” Ranger Fadrowski explains. “This area was underwater when dinosaurs lived.” But these fossils – gathered from 75 million years ago and from through 34 to 37 million years ago (there is a 30-million year gap in the fossil record), fill in an important fossil record between dinosaurs and hominids (that is, early man). Teeth, we learn, provide important information about the animal – what it ate, how it lived – and the environment of the time.

Ranger Mark Fadrowski gives a talk on the fossils found at Badlands National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Pierre Shale, the oldest layer when this area was under a shallow sea, is yielding fossils from 67-75 million years ago. He shows us a fossil of a Mosasaur, giant marine lizards, an ancestor of the Komodo dragon, and one of the biggest sea animals.

 “We don’t have fossils from the 30-million year gap – either the sediment was not deposited or it eroded.” Indeed, we learn that these tall spires of rock with their gorgeous striations, are eroding at the rate of one inch each year, and will be completely gone in another 100,000 to 500,000 years. But the erosion also exposes the fossils.

The environment changed from a sea to a swamp during the Chadron Formation, 34-37 million years ago. “That was caused when the Rocky Mountains formed, with a shift in Teutonic plates. That pushed up and angled the surface so water drained into the Gulf of Mexico.” It was formed by sediments carried by streams and rivers flowing from the Black Hills, deposited in a hot and humid forest flood plain.

Alligators lived during this time. The alligator fossils found here show that the animal hasn’t changed in 30 million years. The alligators migrated when the environment changed, so survived.

During the Brule Formation, 30-34 million years ago, this area was open woodlands, drier and cooler than during the Chadron Formation; in some areas, water was hard to find. Animals that lived here then include the Nimravid, called “a false cat” because it seems to resemble a cat but is not related. The specimen he shows was found by a 7-year old girl just 15 feet from the visitor center and is the most complete skull found to date (imagine that!); there are two holes in the skull that show it was killed by another Nimravid. Also a three-toed horse (now extinct); and a dog.

Many hikers in Badlands National Park have found fossils right on the trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In fact, it turns out it is not at all unusual for visitors to the park to come upon important fossils (there is a whole wall of photos of people and their finds just from this year). In fact, one visitor, Jim Carney, a photographer from Iowa, found two bones sticking up and reported the location. “They thought it would be a single afternoon. It turned out to be a tennis-court sized field, now known as the Pig Dig; the dig lasted 15 summers and yielded 19,000 specimens, including the “Big Pig.”

Fossil of “The Big Pig” is displayed at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It was found at the beginning of the Brule Formation, when the area was drying out. “We believe it was watering hole drying up. Animals caught in the mud were prey for other animals.”

This is a place of Archaeotherium, Oredonts, Mesohippus, Subhyracodon, Hoplophoneus, Metamynodon, Cricid and Paleolagus.

The Sharps Formation, 28-30 million years ago, is where they have found Oreodont fossils. “The name means ‘mountain teeth’ because of the shape of its teeth, not the environment.” Fossils are identified mostly because of teeth which are most common to survive and reveal clues about behavior and what the animal ate, which speaks to the environment.

He shows us the fossil of an Oviodon. “It is weird, there isn’t anything alive like it. The closest relative is camel – like the weird cousin that no one knows how related. It is the most commonly found fossil – which means it was probably a herd animal.” And a Merycoidodon (“ruminating teeth”), which he describes as “a sheep camel pig deer”.

“The Badlands are eroding, so will reveal more fossils. Fossils are harder than rock, so won’t erode as fast.” Interestingly, only 1% of all life is fossilized. “We have to assume there are missing specimens.”

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Badlands “is particularly lush for fossils – because of the types of sediment that preserves them well.– 600,000 specimens have been collected from the Badlands since paleontologists first started coming here in the 1840s. Just about every major institution in the world has specimens that were originally found here, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

They provide clues to the “Golden Age of mammals – half-way between when dinosaurs ended and today – horses, camels, deer.”

I had no idea.

I’m so grateful that John (elected the sweeper for today’s ride) has not rushed me away and, in fact, waited patiently without me even realizing he was there.

Wilderness Voyageurs lunch stop on our ride through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I continue on, stopping often to take photos of the extraordinary landscape with its shapes and textures and striations. I barely miss a dead rattlesnake on the road (I think it was dead) and am too rattled to stop and take a photo.

I get to the Visitor Center which has superb displays and an outstanding film (must see). Again, no one is rushing me away, so I stay for the film, “The Land of Stone & Light”.

Native Americans have been in this area for 12,000 years; the Lakota came from the east around 1701 following buffalo, their culture was so dependent on buffalo. “They would pray for the buffalos’ well being” rather than their own.”

Treaties were signed that defined the borders, but they were broken. The white settlers demanded more and more of the Indian land, especially after gold was discovered in the Black Hills. (I later learn it was William Custer, the famous General of Custer’s Last Stand, who discovered the gold.)

Buffalo were at the center of Lakota culture © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The buffalo – so precious to the Lakota – were hunted nearly to extinction. The white men put up fences for their ranches and farms, preventing the buffalo from migrating. “What happens to the buffalo, happens to Lakota” – they were forced to cease their traditional life, settle down and farm or ranch. Resistance led to tragedy (Battle of Wounded Knee). (There is a photo of the Wounded Knee Massacre at the Trading Post.)

By the turn of the 20th century, the federal government was inviting homesteaders to come out and settle the West – they would get 160 acres if they could last five years on the land. They advertised abroad, enticing immigrants to “the luscious plains in the Dakotas.”

Lumber and stone was rare in the Badlands, so the settlers built their shanties of sod, called “sodbusters.”

“Living was hard; small-scale farming couldn’t succeed. They endured blistering summers, cruel winters, extreme wind. Many left” especially in the Great Depression. I think how ironic.

“Before the Lakota, before the dreams of homesteaders ended, paleontologists came here 150 years ago.” The layered landscape of the Badlands told the story of geologic change, of climate change, that is still continuing. The Badlands are eroding fast – at the rate of one inch per year, “so in 100,000 to 500,000 years, all will be gone. The earth is a dynamic and changing system.”

Badlands National Park is 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires and the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The ecology is complex. This is a mixed grass prairie – it may look dry, but the tangled roots store nutrients. Animals help sustain it –the bison churn up the soil, mixing the moisture and scattering seeds; prairie dogs are critical to the ecosystem, too – they also stir up the soil, and the burrows they dig are used by other animals like owl and ground squirrel. The black footed ferret lives in abandoned burrows and also eats prairie dogs.

The farmers’ attempt to eliminate prairie dogs resulted in the near-extinction of black-foot ferret. They have been reintroduced; also swift fox, bighorn sheep.

Coming upon longhorn sheep during our ride through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The mission of National Parks is to preserve and restore – but we can’t restore the biggest animals that once were here – the prairie wolf and grizzly bear.”

I’m about to leave when I stumble upon the Paleontology Lab, which is open to the public, where we can watch as two paleontologists painstakingly work to remove sediment from bone – their efforts magnified on a TV screen.

Visitors can watch as a paleontolgist works painstakingly to release fossilized bone from rock at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“I am working on a Merycoidodon, an oreodont, which is a group of hoofed mammals native to North America,” the sign says in response to what must be the zillionth time a visitor asks. “Although they have no living relatives in modern times, oreodonts are related to another native North American mammal: the camel. Oreodonts are sheep-sized and may have resembled pigs, but with a longer body, short limbs and with teeth adapted for grinding tough vegetation. The skulls of Merycoidon have pits in front of the eyes, similar to those found in modern deer which contain scent glands used for marking territory. Oreodonts lived in herds and may at one point have been as plentiful in South Dakota as zebras are in the African Serengeti.”

But the paleontologists are happy to answer questions, too. One tells me she has part of an ear canal (very unusual) and ear bones. “It’s unusual to have the upper teeth. This is a sub-adult –I can see wisdom teeth and unerupted teeth.” She is working on a Leptomerycid – relative of mouse deer – an animal the size of house cat.

It has taken her 170 hours to extract teeth from rock.

“This is the second time anyone got an upper row of teeth for this species. It may change scientists’ understanding. We’re not sure if it is a separate species – it has a different type of tooth crown. But having a second fossil means we can compare.”

Visitors can watch as a paleontolgist works painstakingly to release fossilized bone from rock at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just then, the senior paleontologist, Ed Welch comes in and tells me that because teeth are used to determine species, the work being done could prove or disprove whether this animal is a separate species.

Welch says it so far looks like a species that was named in 2010 based on the lower teeth. “Now we have upper teeth and part of the skull. The difference could be variation by ecology (for example, what it ate). It was found at same site so would have been contemporary. We looked at several hundred jaws. This one could be an ‘ecomorph’ – just different because of what it ate.”

The Badlands have some of the oldest dogs ever found, and the most diversity. In the display case is one of only eight specimens ever found – the other seven are at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City but they are not displayed; this is only specimen that can be viewed.“It is the oldest one of its kind,” 33-32 million years old – and was found by a college student from Missouri.

He says the seven-year old girl who found the saber cat fossil that the Ranger showed, came back this year, now 16 years old.

“We ask visitors to leave the fossil where it is and report to us, give us photos, a GPS, so we can locate. Some of the fossils were found right on the trail, not even in remote areas.

Probably the most famous – a hero around the lab – is photographer Jim Carney of Iowa who found two bones that ended up being a big bone bed that so far has yielded 19,000 specimens.

Judging by wall of photos of visitors and their finds just in 2019 it would seem that people have great odds and probability of finding important fossil. Add fossil hunting to the hiking or biking adventure.

Dramatic scenery in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The fossils collected here since the 1840s are in every major institution. While fossils of dinosaurs and early man might get everyone excited, these fossils – the middle of the Age of Mammals – are important to fill out that story of ecological and evolutionary change.

“The Badlands is in the middle of the earth’s transition from Greenhouse to Ice House – and the fossils found here show how animals responded to the ecological change: “adapt, migrate or go extinct.”

Welch made the decision to open the paleontology lab so people can see scientists at work. “We decided to do more than a fishbowl, to make it a great education tool.”

The Fossil Preparation Lab in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is typically open from 9 am – 4:30 pm daily from the second week in June through the third week in September.

Badlands National Park is open year-round.

(More information on Badlands National Park at www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm, www.nps.gov/badl/planyourvisit/events.htm)

During our ride through the Badlands National Park, I spot the major animals that are resident here: bighorn sheep; American bison, pronghorn (also called antelope), mule deer and black-tail prairie dog. The one I miss is a coyote (yet to come).

The breathtaking scenery as we bike through Badlands National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have 12 miles further to bike to our accommodation for the night, the Circle View Guest Ranch, which proves to be an amazing experience in itself.

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

There are still a few spots left on Wilderness Voyageurs’ Quintessential West Cuba Bike Tour departing onMarch 21.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

_________________________

© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Badlands and Black Hills, Buffalos and Bikes: Wilderness Voyageurs’ South Dakota Biketour

Biking where buffalo roam, on Wilderness Voyageurs Badlands and Black Hills bike tour of South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I find myself mere feet from a swarm of buffalo (or more accurately, bison). I am walking my bike and have wisely chosen to walk between two cars that are essentially stopped as the herd crosses a road in Custer State Park, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. From this vantage point, though, I can shoot photos from the left hill and the right field and feel reasonably protected even though there is really nothing between me and them.

Biking where buffalo roam, on Wilderness Voyageurs Badlands and Black Hills bike tour of South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is the second encounter today with this herd – the first came as our small group biked from the enchanted Sylvan Lake to our lunch stop in Custer State Park at the new Visitors Center. The herd had parked itself right on the field outside the center, as if orchestrated by our tour operator, Wilderness Voyageurs. (I am told this isn’t necessarily a regular thing, but was a fortuitous occurrence on this day). It is only just one thrilling experience in an incomparable day, in an incomparable six-days of biking through South Dakota’s Badlands and Black Hills.

In the days before, we biked through Badlands National Park, completely surprised and enthralled by the stark scenery – essentially an ocean floor that had risen up as the Rocky Mountains formed. I had never realized that the Badlands is a gold mine of fossils from about 65 million years ago and from 35 million years ago (with a curious gap of 30 million years) – a transition period from dinosaurs (which went extinct around 65 million years ago) and mammals. Some 600,000 specimens have already been excavated just from this area, supplying every major museum and paleontology laboratory in the world. On this day, in the Visitors Center, we walk into an astonishingly fine Paleontology lab to watch two paleontologists painstakingly chipping away ever so carefully to release fossilized bones from rock.

The captivating scenery as we bike the road through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The fossils are so plentiful – and more are being exposed with erosion – that fossil-hunting should be added to the list of activities that visitors to the Badlands National Park can enjoy. There is an entire “heroes” wall filled with photos of visitors who have made their own fossil finds just this year alone, alerting the paleontologists to their location. One of those visitors from years ago – he is a legend – was a photographer who happened on a couple of fossils; when the paleontologists came, thinking it was an afternoon’s worth of digging, they found a tennis-court sized bone field that so far has yielded 19,000 specimens over 15 years of excavation.

Biking through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Each day of biking through the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota, the landscapes change so dramatically, along with such variety of visual and experience, from nature and natural wonders to heritage to history.

Biking the Mickelson rail trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Over the course of the six days of riding, we bike the entire 109-mile long Mickelson Rail Trail (one of Rail-to-Trails Conservancy’s “Hall of Fame” award-winning trails), taking us through ranch land and towns, ending at the historic town of Deadwood (but not all at once – the Wilderness Voyageurs guides have broken up the rides so we get the best ride and the best itinerary); we ride through Badlands National Park and Custer State Park, with the stunning scenery of the Needles Highway, and ride the Wildlife Loop giving us close encounters with herds of buffalo (actually bison).

A buffalo has the right of way outside my cabin at Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The lodgings are also distinctive: after the Badlands ride, we stay at a guest house on a ranch, and after our ride through Custer State Park, we overnight in luxurious log cabins at the Blue Bell Lodge. The attractions are epic: we hop off the Mickelson trail to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial (who knew it wasn’t finished, but that decades after the death of sculptor Korczak Ziokowski who designed and carved the head, two more generations have worked on it and it will likely take decades more to finish); and finish our tour at Mount Rushmore National Monument (who knew that famous sculpture of the presidents Washington, Jefferson, TR Roosevelt and Lincoln also was not finished but never will be?).

Coming upon the Crazy Horse Memorial as we ride along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I love that the focus is not on racing from point A to B as fast as possible, but that our bikes are our vehicles to explore, to discover, to immerse, to revel in this glorious landscape and history – the bikes become an endorphin-making machine, filling you with exultant feelings. “This is your vacation,” our guide, James Oerding says more than once. I am so glad that most of the rides do not depend upon us all ending up at the van for a shuttle ride, so I don’t have that nagging feeling of holding up other people by stopping for photos or listening to a ranger talk, watching a film or looking at an exhibit.

“This is your vacation.” Taking a break on the Mickelson rail trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

That attitude, “This is your vacation,” follows into how they carefully the route is constructed for the best possible ride and experience. So we don’t do the Mickelson Trail end to end. We start in the middle and go in one direction, then on another day, are shuttled back to that middle starting point to go in the other direction.

The group – small enough so we all fit in one van – is absolutely delightful. After a dozen bike tours, I have found there is a certain self-selection process that goes into choosing a bike tour – bikers (and especially bikers on trips that involve camping) are welcoming, open, interested, congenial, love and respect nature and heritage.

Riding through the rock tunnel on the Needles Highway in Custer State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The six-day bike tour is spectacular in every way, and once again confirms why bike trips are my favorite form of travel: the pace you travel is ideal to really see things (even stop when you want to more closely observe or explore), but fast enough to provide unending interest. The scenery is certifiably spectacular – the idyllic setting on Sylvan Lake, the stone spires of the Needles, the tunnels cut through stone, the expanse of trees that become prairie. Then there is the wildlife – especially as you ride the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park. Plus there is that element of physical challenge that gets the endorphins going (not to mention the pure fresh air, scented with pine and the altitude).

Biking on the Needles Highway in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Not to mention the delightful places Wilderness Voyageurs organizes for us to stay – Circle View Guest Ranch and the cabin at the Blue Bell Lodge were so fantastic (more on that later), the excellent food – breakfast at the lodgings, lunch as satisfying as any gourmet feast, usually served from the back of the van on a table under a lean-to, with ingredients fresh from the farmer’s market or store, wonderfully prepared sandwiches and wraps on request, and dinners at the guides’ favorite restaurants (they sure know how to pick ‘em).

We’re going up where?? The more challenging part of the ride through Custer State Park, south Dakota (but it is really worth it) in Custer State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The guides on our trip – James Oerding and John Buehlhorn – are not only experienced and skilled, but take care of us like Father Hens (rescuing me on that dark night at the lodge when a buffalo was on the path back from the restaurant to my cabin). And then there are the companions you travel with – on this trip, there were three couples and three single women from all over the country, who contribute immeasurably to the pleasure of the experience.

Each day brings its own highlights and surprises – such variety and diversity in the experience and the visuals on top of the normal adventures of biking and travel. Biking is its own experience – you are in your own head, in control of your own transportation. Wilderness Voyageurs, a company I became familiar with as the tour operator for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourns on the Great Allegheny Passage (the company is headquartered in Ohiopyle, PA, on the trail) operates the bike tour in an ideal way – we ride at our own pace; the second guide serves as “sweeper” hanging back with the last rider (most often me!). Neither John nor James ever push me along or discourage me from stopping, exploring, taking photos.

Our lunch stop in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have cue sheets and a Garmin that show us the route, and can download an app that talks the directions (though there aren’t a lot of turns – I still manage to go off route three times). (This style of guided bike tour is not always the case; I recently was on a bike tour with one guide who we had to follow, no cue sheets or directions and plenty of turns; we all had to ride together at the pace of the slowest rider, and if I wanted a photo, I had to ask for the whole group to stop).They also provide wonderful meals including a few dinners at restaurants where we order off the menu. Guided bike tours are not cheap, but there is excellent value in Wilderness Voyageurs’ tour price.

Biking through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is a part of the country I have never been before. And frankly, it is ideal for anyone – especially international visitors – who yearn to immerse themselves in America’s mythic Western past. The combination of nature, open country, historic and heritage attractions that go so deeply into America’s psyche, is unbeatable. And on top of that is the endorphin-rush you get from biking.

A key part of the tour is riding the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, one of 30 rail-trails to have been named to the Hall of Fame by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Also known as “The Big Mick,” The George S. Mickelson Trail (originally named the Black Hills Burlington Northern Heritage Trail), was dedicated in 1998 in memory of the late South Dakota governor who acted in strong support of transforming the former rail line into a multi-use trail.

Railroads opened up the Black Hills. The 109-mile long Mickelson Trail is built on the historic Deadwood to Edgemont Burlington Northern rail line that passes through the Black Hills and was abandoned in 1983. Work started in 1991 and the full trail was dedicated in 1998. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trail follows the historic Deadwood to Edgemont Burlington Northern rail line that passes through the Black Hills and was abandoned in 1983. After strong activism by locals and Governor Mickelson, the first six miles of trail was opened in 1991. Another decade under Governor Jacklow and the trail was completed in 1998 with the help of the US Forest Service, SD Department of Transportation, SD Department of Corrections, the National Guard, SD Department of Game, Fish and Parks, the Friends of the Mickelson Trail and hundreds of volunteers.

There is a strong link between the very existence of this trail and the railroads, and the Crazy Horse Memorial which we will visit, which pays homage to the indigenous peoples who lived here.

Riding through one of the rail tunnels on the Mickelson Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am reminded that the railroads through these Black Hills can be traced back to 1874, when the infamous Lt. Colonel George A. Custer discovered gold as part of an exploration team. This discovery caused an explosion of miners hoping to strike it rich. Within a few years, many other towns were founded and quickly grew. But what led to the development of railroads, was not the need to transport the gold itself, but to move people and supplies.

Along the trail, we see some mining shafts and go through the towns that developed with the railroads, and will even stay in a casino hotel in Deadwood that was re-created from a slime plant (slime is the waste left when they use cyanide to decompose rock to release the gold), that was part of the Homestake Mine, the largest and deepest gold mine; it produced the most gold and was longest in operation, from 1885 to as recently as 2001.

The trail, largely crushed limestone and gravel and beautifully maintained with rest stops and water cisterns, offers wonderful diversity in landscapes as well as attractions. It travels along creeks, across open valleys, and through forests besides ranches; we ride over 100 bridges and through four tunnels. (See more at www.traillink.com/trail/george-s-mickelson-trail)

Over the course of our trip, we will ride the full 109 miles of the trail, but Wilderness Voyageurs has broken it up in such a way as to intersperse attractions and, in a word, make it easier.

Biking the Mickelson rail trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Wilderness Voyageurs Badlands trip starts in Rapid City where I cleverly organize my trip to arrive the day before, staying at the famous, historic Alex Johnson Hotel (famous on its own, but made eternally famous for the part it played in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “North by Northwest” – an autographed caricature of Hitchcock is behind the front desk).

Indeed, the Alex Johnson Hotel is a major attraction in itself (it’s red and white sign atop the building is iconic symbol of the city) – the hotel even provides a walking tour. (Hotel Alex Johnson Rapid City, Curio Collection by Hilton, 523 Sixth Street,Rapid City SD 57701, 605-342-1210, alexjohnson.com.)

The next morning, our guides pick us up with the van at our hotels, and we drive 55 miles down the highway (following what seems like hundreds of Corvettes who have gathered in Rapid City for a convention) to Badlands National Park, for our first day’s ride and the start of our Badlands adventure. But first, we stop at Wall, a literal hole-in-the-wall town that rose up to serve the Westward-bound settlers. On this spot, a drug store opened – more of a general store – and this quaint Western-looking town has become a must-see tourist stop. Delightful. I keep seeing a sign for a museum but can’t find it before it is time to get back to the group.

We stop in Wall before beginning our bike tour in the Badlands, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

There are still a few spots left on Wilderness Voyageurs’ Quintessential West Cuba Bike Tour departing on March 21.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

_________________________

© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures