Tag Archives: Wilderness Voyageurs

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

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

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