Mount Rushmore and the more interesting Custer State Park

IMG_3564-001When you are in South Dakota, you have to visit Mount Rushmore. Even though we’d heard from many people that it’s not as big as you’d think and there are many more beautiful places to visit in SD (which I completely agree with), it’s one of those things you have to see for yourself. We started to drive toward Mount Rushmore and then off to Custer State Park. Unfortunately, one of the cars got a flat tire soon after leaving Sunrise Ranch. Luckily we were close enough to the Ranch and were able to switch cars while Mark tried to help us find a place that’ll fix the flat. It was a Sunday and everyone was at church. Thankfully, the flat wasn’t too bad. On the way to Mount Rushmore, we drove through Black Hills National Forest and suddenly the landscape changes from dry, flat farmland to green forest. We made very few stops since we were already a little delayed. Custer city is very cute little town but again we weren’t hungry so we just kept on driving through.

IMG_3547-002.JPGOn the way to Mount Rushmore, you can see the Crazy Horse memorial that’s been under construction for almost 70 years. It’s supposed to show Crazy Horse riding a horse and pointing in the distance. It’s nowhere near completion due to financial shortfalls but you can still visit the monument. Once completed, it’s supposed to be more than 25 feet larger than Mount Rushmore. The memorial foundation does not accept government funding. The use the admission fees and donations to pay for the memorial. We opted to just drive past it. Mount Rushmore is only about 17 miles from the Crazy Horse memorial.

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one of many such tunnels along Needles highway

Mount Rushmore is nice but there really isn’t much to do or see beyond the faces carved in the mountain. There is a food court so we grabbed a quick lunch, walked around the area for a little bit. The heads of the 4 presidents are 60 feet high. The carving started in 1927 and ended in 1941 and it was meant to increase tourism in the Black Hills area. There was a band playing so we sat in the bleachers and listed to the naval band for a few minutes before getting back in the car. If you are really interested, you can go on a 0.6 mile Presidential trail which gives the closest view of the faces. Overall, this was probably the least interesting places to visit in black hills area. There are so many more interesting options in black hills, SD like Custer State park, Mammoth Site, Jewel Cave, Wind Cave, Badlands National Park and they deserve so much more time and attention.

IMG_3649-001.JPGWe really wanted to get to Custer State Park, drive through needles highway and Wildlife loop road. We started driving to Sylvan Lake in Custer State park via Needles highway. One of the things that Mark (see Sunrise Ranch blog) had mentioned was Custer State Park charges you for a 1 week long entry pass whereas if you go to any other state park you have the option of doing a day pass only for less money. We ended up paying extra for the 1 week pass because that’s the only option available. Needles highway is a beautiful drive through

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Needles highway

rugged granite mountains and pine, spruce, and birch trees. The granite formations look like needles, hence the name. The drive can be slow and winding but it’s definitely worth it. There are many tunnels made through these granite formations and you’ll want to stop and take pictures every few mins. There are a few pull off points but a lot of times, people would just stop on the road, get out and take pictures. There are a lot of people on the road so definitely drive slowly and very carefully. You’ll also be distracted by the huge granite formations piercing out all along the highway.

IMG_3625-001.JPGWe stopped at Sylvan Lake along needles highway and at first glance it looks like any generic lake found in the north east. Just walk a little along the trail and you’ll be entirely surprised. The same granite formations are jutting out of the lake (see picture below) and its just so magnificent. It’s definitely not a generic north-east lake. In summer people can go swimming, kayaking, canoeing, or just walk along the lake trail. I tried to go in but the water was a bit chilly to go swim.

IMG_3682-001.JPGAfter about 45 mins at the lake, we continued our drive through Needles highway and continued on to the Wildlife Loop Road. There’s a very high chance of seeing lots of wildlife at Custer State park, and especially on the Wildlife loop road. We were on this road for a only a few miles but we still saw a few deer and a couple of buffalo, aka bison. The wildlife loop road goes through open grasslands where a lot of wildlife like bison, pronghorn, white-tailed and mule deer, elk, coyotes, prairie dogs call home. In fact, Custer State Park has the second largest bison public heard in the country. If we had driven the whole loop,  I’m sure we would have seen more wildlife. The best time to see wildlife is during morning and evening hours when they are active.

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Sylvan Lake

For dinner we had made plans to have steak at the Ranch so we drove back after a few miles of driving on the wildlife loop road. As usual, the food at the ranch was mouthwatering. The appetizer was lamb and jalapenos wrapped in bacon and it was heavenly. I don’t even like lamb and I couldn’t stop eating these. The steak was also good but I think the highlight of the meal was the lamb. After dinner, we helped Suzanne clean up a little bit before sitting outside drinking and talking. That night we couldn’t do much stargazing because the weather changed suddenly. Thunder, IMG_3635-lightning and ran started but the porch was covered and we were able to enjoy the night regardless of the weather. In fact, we saw a bolt of lightning hit the ground and a few minutes later we saw an orange glow in the same spot. I’ve never in my life seen a wild fire start in front of me but it’s definitely one of those unique moments I’ll never forget. The fire was probably ~12 miles away in Wyoming (that’s according to Mark). After a few hours, we had to call it a night because the total solar eclipse was the next day. We wanted to get an early start in the morning and try to avoid traffic as much as possible so we decided to go to bed relatively early.

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