Situated just south of Rapid City, the hills are covered with pines that, from a distance, appear to be black. To the Lakota Sioux, the original inhabitants of the area, they were “paba sapa,” or “hills that are black.” The name has stuck despite more than a century of dispute over actual ownership of the land.
The hills themselves are worth a visit due to the dense forests, relatively untamed wilderness, herds of wild animals and a landscape dotted with unearthly erosions and strange rock formations. But it is the two massive stone sculptures that draw the most attention, and justifiably so.
The first is Mount Rushmore, perhaps the world’s most outstanding example of rock carving; certainly the largest for the time being. Commissioned by the federal government in the late 1920s, the granite mountain features the heads of four U.S. Presidents blasted out of the stone. They’re easily recognizable because they are almost exact replicas, although at about 60 feet tall, they are thousands of times larger. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt have been keeping steady gaze and watchful eye over the surrounding landscape since the monument was completed in 1941.
Gutzon Borglum, who had earlier carved the faces of Confederate heroes into Stone Mountain in Georgia, was hired as the project’s architect and began work in 1925 by placing a flag atop the mountain that he would convert into the memorial.
The original plans called for full torsos of the four presidents, plus a museum and other facilties to be located at the base of the mountain, but funding ran out before any of that could be done. The final tab was $989.992.32, which included wages for the 400 workers who dynamited away 450,000 tons of granite. The feds paid about 84 percent of the total.
Today, about three million visitors arrive at the memorial and surrounding park every year, almost all of them in the non-winter months.
The second major draw is the Crazy Horse Monument, currently being blasted into another stone mountain about 17 miles away from Mount Rushmore. This is a work of art with no definitive completion time; it may not be finished in this lifetime. But it’s well worth checking out.
In 1946, Korczak Ziolkowski, who had worked on Mount Rushmore with Borglum, entered into an agreement with the Lakota Indians to carve the monumental representation of the famous Ogalala Sioux chieftan. He started work all by himself in 1948 and it’s been going on ever since. His first task was carving more than 700 steps into the face of the mountain so he could reach the top. He was using a jackhammer powered by a generator back on the ground. Because the generator quit frequently, the sculptor had to climb down, restart it and climb back up the 700 steps every time.
Ziolkowski refused any financial assistance from the federal government, securing the necessary capital through admission fees to his nearby studio, donations and annual fund-raisers in Rapid City. When he died in 1982, his family took over and have been working steadily ever since.
The head of Crazy Horse was finished and dedicated in 1998. It rises 87 feet on top of the mountain. When finished, if ever finished, the sculpture will measure 641 feet long and 563 feet high.
The Black Hills also contain the Badlands National Monument, Jewel Cave, and Custer State Park. Also, just a short hop away in Wyoming, Devils Tower rises 1,267 feet above the landscape.
They’re each worth seeing individually, but the opportunity to view all of them on a single trip is a bonanza. Just go there before the snow falls.