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Rapid City to Hill City, SD
Thursday, June 13, 2013
Sunny & windy, high 60s

Today's big event was to be Mount Rushmore which is in the Black Hills National Forest. Approaching the area, you are struck by how dark the mountains look. The name, a translation of the Indian name for the place, look dark because of the color of the needles of the Ponderosa Pines that cover the slopes.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial was, indeed, cool. It is an impressive and patriotic sculpture fronted by a tasteful visitor center. The center effectively tells the story of it's conception, a tourist attraction featuring carvings of American Heroes, to its mostly heroic execution. We walked the walk and toured the sculptor's studio. Worth the stop!

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Mount Rushmore Monument through Avenue of Flags

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Sculptors Scale Model in Sculptor's Studio

However, the Black Hills offer much more than we expected. We filled much of the rest of our day driving the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. Norbeck, a conservationist, state Governor and US Senator personally designed the drive and drove the effort to get it built. The narrow, winding, hilly roads lead you through beautiful Ponderosa pine-covered mountains of Black Elk Wilderness, a grassland nature wildlife loop and the Needles Highway.

The beautiful Ponderosa-forested Black Elk section featured some narrow tunnels, interesting "pigtail" switchbacks to climb the steep hills and beautiful overlooks. In the Wildlife Loop we saw tons of bison, pronghorns, wild burros and gophers. The needles section winds up and around huge granite spike-shaped peaks that are reminiscent of Machu Picchu. The Needles and Black Elk sections, especially, are also remarkable engineering achievements that had us asking how anyone could conceive building such roads!

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Tour Bus Enters Tight Tunnel After Negotiating Pigtail Switchback

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Bison with Calves Graze along Wildlife Loop Road

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Pronghorns Graze a Little Further Along Loop

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Needles Highway Threads its way among Granite Peaks

The Wildlife Loop and Needles sections are inside Custer State Park which charges a $15/car fee for admission. Worth the price? Without a doubt!

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Wary Prarie Dog Checks Out Surroundings

We had been puzzled by the many military convoys we saw the last couple of days. They were comprised of multiple Humvees and many flatbed military tractor trailers hauling logs. We finally found out they National Guard are carrying Ponderosa pine logs from dead trees that are harvested during a forest thinning process as part of their summer maneuvers. The pines are beset by small pine bark beetles that kill the trees. Removing diseased trees eliminates some of the bugs but mostly thins the forest making the trees healthier and less susceptible to beetle infestation. Many of the forests we drove through showed lots of signs of recent thinning. The boards sawn from the diseased trees have interesting blue markings that make them desirable as wood for cabinetry.

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Brush Piles Dot Thinned Ponderosa Forest

Finally, we couldn't leave the area without a stop at the Crazy Horse Memorial. The conception parallels the idea of Rushmore in that it seeks to honor heroic Native Americans. The memorial was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, to be sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski who began work in 1948. Sited on private land and privately funded by donations, it is operated by a private non-profit organization. Ziolkowski's family continues the work since his death in 1982. The finished sculpture would dwarf Mount Rushmore if they were side-by-side. The final concept places a educational/cultural center on the site. The work is really barely underway and will not be completed for many years.

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Crazy Horse Memorial with Horse's-Head-To-Be in Outline

We camped in Crooked Creek Resort in nearby Hill City, SD. Dinner was a satisfying, sweet & sour, ham & veggie stir-fry.


Hill City to Billings, MT
Friday, June 14, 2013
Mostly sunny, beautiful, 60s

Today is mostly a travel day with just a couple of stops along the way.

First was at the town of Deadwood. The town includes the Deadwood Historic District, a National Historic Landmark District. As the areas buildings were rehabbed, beginning in the 80s, they must conform to historic appearances. The interiors, although "Deadwood" themed, often have little to do with original use or appearance.

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Bullock Inn in Downtown Deadwood

Every other building seems to house a casino. Special legislation provides for limited-stakes gambling in the town in exchange for providing much of the funding for restoration.

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Sawdust Covers Saloon Floor

The whole town is about Wild Bill Hickok, where he ate his last meal, the chair he sat on when he was shot, etc. The most impressive building we entered, though, had nothing to do with Hickok. That was the Franklin Hotel. Much of the interior was found intact when they removed the walls that covered it and the interior has been nicely restored. It's actually a pretty cool place.

Nearby Lead was and is a gold mining town. Built on the steep sides of a narrow valley, it features Victorian houses on the hillsides. We weren't so impressed, though, with the houses having seen so many beautiful restorations in other places. What was impressive was the open pit entrance to the Homestake Gold Mine. Begun as an open mine in 1876, it continued as a pit mine starting in 1983 and is now tunneled to about 8,000 ft below the surface.

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Visible Portion of Homestake Gold Mine

Heading west on I-90, we caught our first glimpse of distant, snow-covered peaks; most likely part of Bighorn National Forest.

Continuing on, we stopped at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. It memorializes the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry and the Sioux and Cheyenne in one of the Indian's last armed efforts to preserve their way of life. It is beautiful country and hard to believe that such a bloody, unnecessary battle took place there. The battle represented the culmination of a sad series of cultural misunderstandings, greed, broken promises and bad decisions.

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Headstones Mark Locations of Fallen Cavalry at Site of Custer's Last Stand

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Portion of Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument Honoring Native Americans

We continued on the Billings, MT, where we got a site at Yellowstone River Campground. We've been on the road for two weeks, having camped in a dozen places and driven a little over 3,000 miles. Whew! Our plan is to spend a couple of well-earned days doing laundry, updating the website, touring and maybe even relaxing!

Dinner was an old, "I'm too tired to cook or go out," standby of baked potatoes & chili from Wendy's and a salad. Actually, it's tasty, nutritious and cheap! What's not to like?