Places of Reverence

Published: March 25th 2012
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Hot Springs WaterfallHot Springs WaterfallHot Springs Waterfall

Cliff side waterfall park in Hot Springs, South Dakota
Today was a day for some of the Black Hills most important sites.

I began with a long drive to the southern Black Hills town of Hot Springs.

The road ran along the edge of the prairie next to the hills proper, which gives a sense of how they stick up from the surrounding landscape.

Hot Springs was named after actual springs, which were turned into a health resort in the late 1800s.

Most of downtown contains distinctive sandstone architecture.

The hot water resorts are mostly gone at this point, but the town still has a vaguely hippy vibe.

A park downtown also frames a nice waterfall on a cliff.

I got a picnic lunch at a local café and pushed on.

Wind Cave National Park

Heading northwest, I reached the first target of the day, Wind Cave.

This cave is sacred to the Lakota (see yesterday), who believe that all life on earth, including humans, emerged from its entrance.

American settlers had other ideas, and turned it into a tourist attraction.

Eventually, the National Park Service took over.

They now offer several tours, one of which is the
Wind Cave Natural EntranceWind Cave Natural EntranceWind Cave Natural Entrance

The single natural entrance to the fifth largest cave system on earth, Wind Cave
natural entrance tour.

The tour contains a mixture of natural beauty and history.

It starts at the actual entrance to the cave.

The entrance is a hole in the ground about a foot wide.

Next to it, the wind which gives the cave its name is quite obvious.

Multiple Native American prayer flags were tied above the hole.

Early explorers could not fit through that hole, so they blasted another one with dynamite in 1890.

They were after gold, but quickly discovered they had found a huge cave instead.

The tour starts by squeezing through this entrance and down a long and claustrophobic set of stairs.

The stairs end at the first major passage.

The passage goes to a room called the Post Office.

Wind Cave looks very different to Mammoth (see Intruders in the Land of Eternal Night).

Passages here are narrow and change direction often, creating a huge maze.

The walls and ceilings are lined with a type of formation called boxwork.

Very thin ridges crisscross over the rocks at all sorts of angles.

When the uplift of
Wind Cave BoxworkWind Cave BoxworkWind Cave Boxwork

Close up of boxwork in the Post Office room in Wind Cave
the Black Hills first cracked the limestone, water deposited calcite in the cracks, which then solidified.

Calcite dissolves much slower than limestone, so the ridges were left behind as the passages formed.

The Post Office got its name because it is filled with the stuff.

In this room, the guide discusses early cave exploration.

The original owners, Jessie McDonald and John Stabler, hired a sixteen year old orphan to map the cave.

He carried a ball of twine to mark the way back out.

He also memorized each room as he explored, so he would know where he was.

He quickly figured out that the cave was rather large (it’s the fifth longest in the world) and he would never find the end.

The guide then demonstrated what the cave looked like in the early days.

He lit a single candle and turned out the lights.

The features of the room were visible as ghostly blobs.

People once paid money to see this!

After the Post Office, the tour proceeded through other parts of the cave.

The most important instruction was to
Queen's PalanceQueen's PalanceQueen's Palance

A portion of the Queen's Palace room within Wind Cave
always follow the paved path, and take a right when it turned.

Failure to do so would result in an unscheduled tour of another part of the cave, in complete darkness.

The tour went through multiple rooms.

The most impressive was the Queen’s Palace, a wonderland of fallen rock slabs.

The tour ended at the Assembly Room.

This low ceilinged room is the junction of multiple cave passages.

Here, the guide talked about modern exploration of the cave.

According to studies of air pressure inside the cave, roughly one twentieth of the cave has been mapped.

The problem with finding the rest is that reaching it pushes the bounds of human endurance.

Any passage that people can walk through was mapped decades ago, and nearly any passage people can crawl through is known.

Passages at this point need to be squeezed through like an earthworm; one caver described it as crawling through a soda straw (for comparison, see the wire tunnel at the St. Louis City Museum: The Joys of Childhood).

At this point, exploration moves very slowly indeed.

The last part of
Roadside buffaloRoadside buffaloRoadside buffalo

Turn camera flash off before taking a picture like this!
the tour was downright surreal.

A passage from the Assembly Room led to a glass door!

The guide opened it and ushered everyone through.

On the other side was a grey walled room with a 1930s style elevator door on the other side.

The glass door is needed to keep air from the surface from polluting the cave.

The elevator is the way out.

It really was installed in the 1930s, and is old and rickety.

Riding it was a little worrying.

We emerged on the surface a half mile from where we started.

Wind Cave Prairie

One of the clichés of a Wind Cave visit, like Mammoth, is that people see only half of the park.

The cave lies at the edge of the Black Hills and prairie, and the park holds an impressive amount of wildlife.

Much of the best of the aboveground views appear along a scenic drive, which just happened to go to my next destination.

The drive through Wind Cave National Park started in rolling prairie and ended in forest.

In between are deep gullies and
Custer State Park buffalo herdCuster State Park buffalo herdCuster State Park buffalo herd

A transcendent sight in Custer State Park
steep hills.

The first notable stop was a prairie dog town.

These little rodents build holes in the ground by the dozens, and poke their heads out like a wack-a-mole game.

They are a delight to watch.

To see them, shoot photos from the parking lot because human movement scares them.

Further along falls Beaver Creek Bridge, a graceful cement arch bridge now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Next up was my first horsetail bridge.

The road crosses a wooden bridge, makes a tight two hundred seventy degree curve, and then passes under the bridge.

The design drops lots of elevation in a short space.

For some reason, these bridges are all over the Black Hills.

Finally, there was the field.

The field gives a huge panorama of the eastern portion of the Black Hills, with mountains stretching away in all directions.

Soon after, I entered Custer State Park.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park was established in 1912 by a visionary governor named Peter Norbeck to preserve spectacular Black Hills landscapes.

The park is as good as any national park, and better than some of them.

Personally, I
French CreekFrench CreekFrench Creek

The creek where Custer's expedition found gold (although not at this spot)
think it ranks with Baxter State Park in Maine as one of the best state parks in the United States.

I planned to spend quite a bit of time in it.

For many people, seeing a buffalo in the wild ranks as one of the biggest rites of passage on a western journey.

People talk about seeing buffalo almost as much as they talk about seeing bears (see The Majesty of Trees).

Soon after entering the park I saw my first buffalo.

It was hard to miss, walking along the side of the road.

I passed it slowly and carefully, and took my pictures even more carefully, because that buffalo could total my car if it wanted to.

Remember to turn off camera flash!

Soon enough, I got something even better.

Custer State Park holds one of the largest buffalo herds in the United States.

The herd is one of only two that is genetically pure; most modern buffalo have been cross-bred with cattle (the other herd is located in Yellowstone National Park)

During the spring and summer, it roams free through the lower elevations of the
Black Hills from Iron MountainBlack Hills from Iron MountainBlack Hills from Iron Mountain

The Black Hills from the roadside outlook near the top of Iron Mountain. This view looks south to Harney's Peak

In a field along the road, I saw a big part of it.

Dozens upon dozens of animals, munching on grass or just sleeping in the sun.

The herd included a number of calves.

One buffalo is a notable sight; the first big herd is a transcendent experience.

Sadly, it was marred by the wildlife jam of at least six cars of people stopped on the road to take pictures.

I pulled over, got my shots, carefully passed the jam, and drove on my way.

The next notable item was French Creek.

This very pretty stream runs through the heart of the park.

The place where George Armstrong Custer’s expedition discovered gold lies along this creek (although not in the park).

When I crossed it, the creek ran through a little gorge with wildflowers and aquatic plants on either side.

In the early 1930s, Peter Norbeck personally laid out two scenic highways across the state park.

He designed them to showcase the scenery to maximum effect.

The highway engineers protested that they were too difficult to build, but they
Mount Rushmore tunnel viewMount Rushmore tunnel viewMount Rushmore tunnel view

The famous view of Mount Rushmore from a tunnel on Iron Mountain Road. I pulled over before the tunnel and set up the camera in advance to get this picture safely.
somehow did it anyway.

Today, I travelled Iron Mountain Road.

It goes up and over the namesake peak.

The early part is practically dull, traveling through open fields.

Then it climbs.

Climbs and climbs through a series of switchbacks.

The views get better and better.

Soon enough, it crests over the top of the mountain.

A parking lot at the top has a three sixty degree view of the Black Hills, and a monument to Peter Norbeck.

On the way down, the adventure truly begins.

The highway is narrow and steep.

It soon reaches a tunnel only one car wide.

Drive through slowly for an unexpected treat; the tunnel perfectly frames Mount Rushmore in the distance.

The monument was being carved at the time the highway was planned, and Peter Norbeck deliberately designed the highway layout to get that effect.

A second tunnel produces the same effect for people going the other way.

Then, a third tunnel also shows the view.

For photographers, this tunnel is the money shot because it is closest to the monument.

Horsetail bridgeHorsetail bridgeHorsetail bridge

One of Iron Mountain Road's famous horsetail bridges.
the picture safely is tricky.

Pull into the pullout just before the tunnel and set up the camera.

It will need a pretty deep focus.

Let all traffic in BOTH directions pass through the tunnel.

Pull in, stop for just long enough to get the picture, and pass through.

While the tunnels are the highlight, they are far from the end.

The road has three separate horsetail bridges to get through.

As noted above, this bridge is where the highway curls under itself to lose elevation.

More switchbacks follow, until the road ends on a much wider road.

This road leads to Mount Rushmore.

Watch it from a motorcycle:

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore is one of the most famous, and revered, sites in the United States.

The idea for it started in 1923 with a man called Doanne Robinson.

He wanted to create something huge that would draw tourists to the Black Hills.

His original idea was to carve images of notable western explorers (Lewis and Clark, etc.) on a section of Black Hills rock formations called the Needles.
Gutzon Borglum's studioGutzon Borglum's studioGutzon Borglum's studio

Gutzon Borglum's studio while he worked on Mount Rushmore. He used the large model on the right to plan the carving on the mountain.

He went looking for a sculptor, and found Gutzon Borglum.

Borglum had previously worked on, and been fired from, Stone Mountain in Georgia (see One Big Rock).

Borglum changed both the idea and the location of the sculpture.

He wanted presidents to represent the glory of American history and ideals.

He moved the location from the Needles because they were too narrow to carve safely.

The final design became the heads of four presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln.

They symbolize important eras of American History that Borglum admired.

Borglum required 18 years to carve the mountain, which was finally dedicated in 1941.

He originally planned to carve torsos as well as heads, but had to abandon this part as World War II approached.

A ghost of this design is on the monument, the apparent coat lapels under George Washington.

Visiting the site is a pain.

The monument has become the centerpiece of a huge tourist trap with expensive dining, enormous gift shops, and a high admissions fee.

The amenities are relatively tasteful, but they are a tourist trap
Mount Rushmore blast debrisMount Rushmore blast debrisMount Rushmore blast debris

Debris field of rocks blasted off Mount Rushmore during the carving process.
none the less.

What really drives me nuts is the legal gymnastics around the fee.

Mount Rushmore has a legal requirement that it can’t charge admission.

The concessionaire gets around this by claiming the fee is a “parking fee”.

If someone managed to hike up here from the nearest town, they would get in for free.

How often does that happen? (And if the reader guessed that every road for miles around is covered in “no parking” signs, they would be right.)

To add insult to injury, the “parking fee” also means that federal land passes don’t cover it.

In the end, like any tourist trap, people need to decide whether what the monument offers is worth the expense.

In addition to the mountain itself, it does have a very good museum on the process of carving it, and a huge amphitheater used to present patriotic programs.

It IS possible to see the carving without paying, it’s worth noting.

The road up has a pretty good view.

Pull into the breakdown area, quickly take some pictures, and move on (stay too long and the police will give
Veteran's tributeVeteran's tributeVeteran's tribute

A small portion of the military veterans honored at the Mount Rushmore lighting ceremony.
a ticket).

I ultimately paid the fees because I wanted to see the patriotic presentation.

I started my visit at the sculptor’s studio.

Borglum built it to direct work on the mountain.

Inside he built a scale model of the carving out of plaster, which is still huge.

Having learned from Stone Mountain, this time he transferred the model layout to the mountain using surveyors’ tools and triangulation.

All but the most delicate carving work was done with dynamite.

After the studio, the trail runs along the base of the mountain.

The trail eventually reaches a viewpoint at the base of a huge pile of rocks.

The rocks are debris dynamited off the mountain.

Drill holes are visible with careful observation.

The trail has display panels discussing each of the presidents.

Washington founded the country.

Jefferson greatly expanded its boundaries with the Louisiana Purchase.

Lincoln held it together through the Civil War.

Roosevelt created the modern conservation movement in the United States.

Of all the presidents, Borglum insisted on Roosevelt the most.

Mount Rushmore lit upMount Rushmore lit upMount Rushmore lit up

Mount Rushmore after the lighting ceremony

The patriotic program was held in a huge amphitheater in front of the visitor’s center.

First, a park ranger gave a talk about the monument, its history, and what the monument meant to them.

Next, a patriotic film was shown on a huge screen.

Most of it was the history of the country, highlighting the roles of each of the presidents.

The film ends with “America the Beautiful” and a portfolio of impressive landscape photos.

At the end of the film, the monument was slowly light by huge floodlights.

Watch it (not my video, though):

To close the program, the ranger asked all military veterans in the audience to join him on stage.

They ultimately filled the entire area.

Those left in the stands stood and applauded.

A local Boy Scout troop then lowered the flag.

With that, the ceremony was over.

I stuck around for a bit afterward, to avoid the worst of the traffic.

Like any tourist trap, getting out afterward is normally a nightmare.

I spent the night at a campground in Custer State Park near Sylvan Lake.

My site was on a gentle hillside that looked like the classic west, all pine trees, scrubby bushes, and big rocks.

I had to walk there from the parking lot, but it was worth it.


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