Head for the Hills: South Dakota travel

National treasure, golden attractions just a day-and-a-half away from Eastern Iowa

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March 28, 2014 | 1:10 pm

North by northwest of Eastern Iowa lies a tourist attraction of monumental proportions.

Mount Rushmore is, quite simply, a national treasure. And it’s just an easy day-and-a-half drive away, with several great four-lane routes to zip there: straight across Iowa on Interstate 80 or Highway 20, north on Interstate 29 or 35, then west on Interstate 90. Smooth sailing all the way.

Note: If you do take the I-35 route, you’ll miss western Iowa’s celebrated Loess Hills — our own mini mountain range, beckoning a side trip my family definitely will make on our next trek west.

And we will go back. South Dakota is that spectacular. The Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, nearby Custer State Park, twisting mountain roads, Crazy Horse emerging from a mountain, lively Deadwood, nearby Devils Tower and the oh-so-good Badlands. We saw them all in a quick five-day trip, and relished every moment.

The hardest part about planning our August 2012 outing was working around the infamous annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. For summer 2013, you’ll want to avoid Aug. 5 to 11 — and probably a week on either side of those dates — unless you’re part of the die-hard biker throng that converges on all the roads, restaurants, campgrounds and hotels for miles around.

We went the last week of August and enjoyed perfect weather — although it was 105 degrees at Devils Tower.

We needed to find a summer vacation destination within an easy two-day drive of Eastern Iowa — one where our mother could sight-see from the car or wheelchair accesses. My brother and I wanted photo ops and some hiking possibilities.

South Dakota blew us away.

It exceeded our every expectation and upon our return, my brother proclaimed it “the best road-trip we’ve ever taken.” Considering we’ve driven all over the United States, that’s the pinnacle of praise.

At first glance, Interstate 90 seems a rather desolate drive. Occasional sunflower and sorghum fields dot the wide-open spaces, and in the midst of the drought, cattle gathered around the few watering holes that hadn’t dried up. Gnarled sun-bleached trees added Wild West ambience. Thankfully, our modern covered wagon had air conditioning and comfy seats.

Along the way, we decided to skip the Corn Palace (been there, done that) and Wall Drug. My brother was so sick of the multitude of signs pointing toward the famed tourist attraction that he refused to stop there. We were on a mission to reach Rushmore that afternoon.

A Facebook friend who lives in Rapid City assured us the semi-boring, flatland drive across the state would all be worth it once we got to the Black Hills. She was so right. The hills are alive with beauty and majesty and wonder — and people. South Dakota seems pretty sparsely populated until you approach Rapid City, where suddenly, it all explodes. People and traffic and houses and shopping and the soaring sights to see, seemingly around every twisty bend.

MOUNT RUSHMORE

Mount Rushmore is the epitome of patriotism — four giant presidential portraits carved into a granite mountainside — so intriguing, Hollywood couldn’t resist. The faces were recreated for the climactic chase scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller, “North by Northwest,” and more recently, Mount Rushmore was the hiding place for the City of Gold in “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.”

You really don’t see it when you’re driving up the highway from Keystone, but when you turn the corner and the 60-foot busts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln emerge atop the 5,725-foot mountain, all you can do is gasp.

The figures represent 150 years of America’s history, from birth and growth to development and preservation — and took 14 years to complete. Danish sculptor Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers dangled from steel cables and perilous perches from Oct. 4, 1927, to Oct. 31, 1941, using dynamite to carve the memorial.

No one died from the arduous work, but Borglum died of an embolism in March of 1941. His son, Lincoln, continued the sculpture. The total cost was $989,992.32 and the National Park Service took control of the monument in 1933.

Today, a gorgeous, modern park setting greets visitors. Restrooms, a visitors center, bookstore, cafe and gift shop line a wide walkway that leads to an avenue of state flags, opening onto an amphitheater in front of the massive sculpture.

We arrived in the afternoon and caught the last ranger’s walk that took us so close to the faces it felt like we could touch them. We couldn’t, but we did have spectacular angles for photos. We also explored sculptor Borglum’s studio.

We left to find dinner and a motel in Keystone, then returned before dusk for the Evening Lighting Ceremony. This solemn celebration included a film about the arduous sculpting process and a tribute to veterans in the audience. Be sure to take tissues. It’s a very moving experience.

The next day, I found myself craning for another glimpse of this historic wonder as we traversed the Black Hills, en route to Custer State Park.

CUSTER STATE PARK

Although South Dakota’s first and largest state park isn’t that far from Mount Rushmore as the crow flies, we’re not crows. Several roads will lead you from Keystone to Custer, but for the very best, most exciting and scenic path, take the turn that’s about halfway up the road from Keystone to Mount Rushmore, turn left and follow Iron Mountain Road, which turns onto Needles Highway Scenic Drive.

Wend your way along a breathtaking series of switchbacks right through the Black Hills, with scenic overlooks and photo ops aplenty. At one point, you round a bend and suddenly Mount Rushmore is perfectly framed by the entrance/exit of a short stone tunnel. You won’t win any road races taking this route, but it’s a memory-maker.

At the end of the road lies the fairly flat Custer State Park, where a ribbon of easy driving roads creates a circular route through fascinating flora and fauna. Buffalo roam relatively freely there, along with elk, various deer, pronghorns (which look like antelope), mountain goats, bighorn sheep and reclusive mountain lions. Most of these smart animals were being reclusive as we drove through the midday heat.

The burros, however, were not. They are not one bit shy, and will stand right in front of your car, forcing you to stop. If you roll down your window, they will poke their heads right inside and sniff out any snacks within reach. You’re not supposed to feed the animals, but the temptation is pretty great, and something tells me lots of people do. For the record, we did not.

DEADWOOD

Leaving Custer, we needed to make our way to Deadwood, seeking another scenic route. A local advised us to drive by the Crazy Horse Memorial, a giant sculpture slowly and painstakingly emerging from a mountainside north of the town of Custer. A Gazette colleague and her young family loved exploring this site, but we were not intrigued.

Also near Custer are turnoffs to Wind Cave and Jewel Cave, attractions we’ll check out next time.

We had a lovely, leisurely afternoon drive up to Deadwood, a Wild West mining town that now mines tourists’ gold. It seems like every other storefront on the old town Main Street houses a casino.

We dined at Kevin Costner’s swanky joint, The Midnight Star, which features two restaurants and a gaming floor. We skipped the pricey top-floor fine-dining room, but loved the second-floor bar and grill, Diamond Lil’s, chock-full of Costner’s costumes, photos, posters and movie memorabilia. Alas, “Field of Dreams” was relegated to the hallway by the men’s bathroom. Not very dignified for our Iowa icon.

We arrived too late to squeeze in the town’s tourist attractions like Boot Hill (actually Mount Moriah Cemetery), final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and other Wild West notables. The drive is incredibly steep, so our waiter advised us to take one of the buses that make the trek.

The Old West city also boasts other historic attractions, including shoot-outs. You could easily make Deadwood a lively day’s destination. But the Devils Tower was calling our name.

DEVILS TOWER

A little more than an hour west of Deadwood lies the country’s first National Monument, signed into posterity by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.

This giant monolith emerging from the prairie truly lies in the middle of nowhere. But the moment you spy it, this magnificent magma formation lures you with a mysterious magnetic force. You just have to have a close encounter with this natural wonder. It’s no wonder this is a sacred site to the Lakota and other American Indian tribes.

Of course, I wouldn’t even know about this monolith with its distinctive vertical cracks if not for Steven Spielberg’s 1977 alien epic, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Unfortunately, it was 105 degrees when we arrived at the park gates, so we just hopped out of the car, shot a multitude of photos, admired the view and skipped the recommended hiking.

Note: The trading posts by the entrance to the park are not gas stations, so fill up your tank before you leave Deadwood.

THE BADLANDS

On the way home, about midway across South Dakota, lies the biggest surprise of our trip. The Badlands. Gas up in Wall, then turn south, and after about 8 miles of dreary flats, the land falls away into an unparalleled moonscape that will leave you speechless. Majestic mountains are carved downward, and as you drive down, you suddenly feel like you’re on top of a fantasy land of colors and shapes and valleys and rifts.

Saber-tooth cats once roamed there. Now you’ll see lots and lots of cute little prairie dogs, as well as the occasional bighorn sheep, bison and horned creatures we couldn’t identify. My brother and I wanted to do some hiking, but the “BEWARE Rattlesnakes!” signs prevented us from straying from the boardwalks.

Photo ops abound, and the Visitor Center gives a nice overview of the area, as well as a welcome respite from the heat.

We felt like we saw a lot in a week, but I really think we just scratched the surface. We can’t wait to explore more of this monumental state right next door. We remembered very little from our childhood trips there, but felt like children again every step of the way.

IF YOU GO:

--- Getting there: Interstate 90 crosses South Dakota and connects with Interstate 29 at Sioux Falls, S.D., and with Interstate 35 at Albert Lea, Minn.; Mount Rushmore lies about 720 miles west of the Corridor

--- Mount Rushmore: nps.gov/moru and Mtrushmorenationalmemorial.com

--- Rapid City region: Visitrapidcity.com

--- Black Hills: Blackhillsbadlands.com

--- Deadwood: Deadwood.org and Cityofdeadwood.com

--- Badlands: nps.gov/badl

--- South Dakota: Travelsd.com    

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