Our day started at 7:30 am with a chuck wagon breakfast, a visit to the Fort Hays SD historical (or historical looking) buildings and shop. At 9:00 am we climbed aboard a Mt. Rushmore and Black Hills tour bus. We don’t take many tours but this is one we can recommend.
Fort Hays is a tourist stop, not a real fort. But several of the buildings in the fort were used in the film Dances with Wolves. Other scenes from the film were done in the surrounding area of the Black Hills.
Our first stop was Mount Rushmore National Monument. This is a stop that lives up to the hype. There is a film that provides background information about the monument. Then a short walk out to the amphitheater for a fantastic view of the carved faces (no ears) of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. You stand there surrounded by people but the carved faces seem to be looking just at you. Very impressive.
The next stop was Custer State Park, but to get to Custer State Park we went on a very scenic road, 16A. This is NOT a road for the RV and only the most experienced (and daring) tour bus drivers. This was quite an experience and engineering marvel, most engineers thought that a road through the Black Hills was impossible to build. Finally, one engineer accepted the task by saying: “If you will give me enough dynamite, I can build a road anywhere”.
To drive up many mountains you typically use switchbacks. Not on 16A, where we were traveling from the northern to the southern portions of the Black Hills. They use switchbacks AND wooden Pigtail Bridges to move up the mountain. The pigtail bridges are spiral circles built twisted like a pig’s tail. These are very tight turns, they are designed to take you up or down 60 or more feet in less area (about 70 yards in diameter) than a switchback requires. There were few places on the route where sufficient area was available to use the bridges. On some of the switchbacks our bus driver needed both lanes of traffic and most of the shoulder area as well.
We also went through several one lane tunnels (our RV is too tall for any of these tunnels), each one more narrow and shorter than the tunnel before it. The last tunnel had about 2 inches on either side of the bus and required the driver to go back and forth several times to get the back end of the bus aligned so we could go through. It was a very slow passage. At the end of the tunnel, people were lined up taking pictures of the bus coming through. The driver received applause not only from the bus passengers but those that watched from the street.
At Custer State Park is beautiful Sylvan lake that was used in the film National Treasure 2 (so was Mount Rushmore). There is a restaurant at the park lodge where I had my first buffalo stew, which was excellent.
The last stop was the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is to honor the Indian chief. It is a work in progress. The sculpture was started by Korczak Ziolkowski, who was for a brief time a sculptor’s assistant at Mount Rushmore. His family continues the work. This sculpture is being done only with private funds and it will be a long time before it is finished. (We heard it said that it would be 5 more generations before it would be complete.) The sculpture is huge. All the carved faces of Mount Rushmore could fit inside the space for Crazy Horse’s head, and that is only a small part of what the entire sculpture will be. The Crazy Horse Memorial is a complex that includes a Native American Educational and Cultural Center, Indian University of North America, and there are plans to have a medical college to benefit the Native Americans.
It was getting late in the day when we arrived back at Fort Hays. There was dinner and a show waiting for us. Dinner was bar-b-q brisket, which was very good. The show is a performance by a local band, the bass guitarist was our bus driver’s brother. The band is good and the music fun. This was a typical chuck wagon dinner as it is known in this area, there are several of them to choose from, if you are interested.
We arrived back at the RV exhausted but filled with great memories. What we liked best about the tour is that you were shown several of the top Black Hill attractions in a day. The next evening, we revisited Mount Rushmore for the evening lightning program.