Take a peek up the president's nose Mount Rushmore, S.D By Larry McIntyre.
Why did the bison cross the road?" That's the thought that came to mind as my family, traveling via minivan, made a hairpin turn on a narrow road in the Black Hills and came face to face with a 2,000-pound bison.
On vacation, we have two goals–relaxation and new experiences. We found both in South Dakota.
As soon as you enter the state, stop at a tourism information site to buy or rent audiocassettes. The entertaining tapes present an "old west" history of South Dakota while highlighting the tourist stops.
We went first to the small-and I do mean small-town of De Smet, childhood home of The Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder. We visited Laura's home, the purveyor's office where "Pa" worked, even the family's gravesite. (Laura isn't there. She's buried in Missouri.) In the summer, De Smet hosts an Ingalls Wilder pageant with activities and events.
As we left De Smet, I instructed the family to call me "Pa," my wife titled herself "Ma," and I began calling my daughter "Half-pint," which she didn't care for at all. The Laura Ingalls Wilder theme deteriorated when my son gave himself the Indian name Chief Smelly Wind and my daughter thought this was funny and renamed herself Little Toot.
Moving on, we headed for Wall.
All through Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota, we read signs promoting Wall. The billboard were all over: "First Wall Drug, then Mount Rushmore," "Wall Drug–see our amazing T-Rex" and "All Roads Lead to Wall." Our interest was piqued. We spent the night. But it was time to stop. I am stronger than advertising. Or am I?
Bottom line: Wall Drug is the epitome of the tacky tourist trap. But it's also fun with a lot of history, old-fashioned silliness and great souvenirs.
About 20 miles before Wall is the east entrance to the Badlands, an incredible range of mini-mountains sculpted from land eroding over millions of years. Layers of color-grays, purples, browns, yellows-provide a stunning picture of the geological history. The hiking and camping is great. Spend at least one day and early evening in the Badlands, but leave before dark. You don't want to be driving in the Badlands at night. There are no lights and the winding roads are too narrow.
To deal with our Mount Rushmore visit, we stationed ourselves in Rapid City, a metropolitan area about 30 miles north. We were the guests of the Rapid City Country Inn and Suites, which was great, complete with a pool, whirlpool and water slide.
Our plan was to venture into the Black Hills by day and return to Rapid City at night. However, we learned that 30 miles of winding roads in the Black Hills equals about one hour of travel, and in some cases, like the Needles Path in Custer State Park, 20 miles of hairpin turns approaches two hours of travel.
With that in mind, if you plan to spend more than a day in the Black Hills, we recommend you lodge wherever your day ends because a long trip back to Rapid City at the end of the day is an energy killer. However, if you are traveling northwest of Rapid City, to Spearfish Canyon or Devil's Tower, Rapid City is ideal.
Traveling south from Rapid City on U.S. Route 16 is a string of attractions capitalizing on Mount Rushmore's tourist trade. We stopped at three.
Reptile Gardens, claims "the world's largest reptile collection" and is a must-see if anyone likes scaly critters. Our children got to hold a 200-pound Burmese python and we were mesmerized by the alligator and crocodile show. One trainer trying to survive in a small pen of more than 30 man-eaters. That's entertainment.
Next up: Bear Country USA, a drive-through wildlife park. Having huge, furry wild mammals walk up and look through your car window is amazing. The collection includes wolves, mountain lions, elk, big-horn sheep and bison. There is a walk-through smaller animal zoo and a separate den for baby bears, which we enjoyed the most.
Our last stop was the Flying T Chuckwagon Suppershow-dinner, a music and comedy show and grub from the chuckwagon. Then we were ready for the main event: Mount Rushmore.
We took U.S. Route 16 into the Black Hills, named for its dense evergreens and home to Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park and Wind Tunnel National Park–all must-see attractions.
Custer State Park and Wind Tunnel Cave National Park are nature preserved in all its glory. You could get out of your car and walk right up to a herd of bison. But don't. It's not recommended. You can run through Prairie Dog Town and hear their unison alert, telling you you're not invited. (Prairie Dogs don't bark, they chirp.) You can walk deep into a cave, imagining how explorers navigated by candlelight or lantern. We spent three days, it could easily have been three weeks.
Make time for a stop at the Crazy Horse Monument. Unlike Mount Rushmore, a publicly funded project costing millions of dollars, using hundreds of workers and taking several decades to complete, Crazy Horse Monument was the vision of a single man using donated funds. He's been more than 50 years and he has completed only the bust.
South of the Black Hills is a small town called Hot Springs, home to the Mammoth Site, a sinkhole that was the final resting place for thousands of creatures searching for water about 26,000 years ago. This is the largest active mammoth dig site in the world-great for a budding paleontologist.
Finally, it's time for Mount Rushmore.
You drive on a winding road up the mountain and suddenly you see the face of George Washington peering around a thick growth of giant evergreens. It's stunning. Even after watching a 30-minute movie about its creation, I still found myself asking, "How did they do this?"
During the day, you can hike the Presidential Trail and get close enough to look up George Washington's nose.
Be sure to come back in the evening for the outdoor movie, narrated by James Earl Jones, featuring the history of our country and how Mount Rushmore embodies all that is great in our nation.
Just the facts Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse National Monument, Custer State Park, Windcave, National Park, Badlands www.travelsd.com
Laura Ingalls Wilder's hometown www.liwms.com Tourist Spots on U.S. Route 16 www.roadtorushmore.com
Mammoth Site www.mammothsite.com
Rapid City Country Inn and Suites www.countryinns.com/rapidcitysd_southLarry McIntyre is a writer, photographer and father of two.