Digging Deeper into South Dakota: Beyond Mount Rushmore

G.E Farmakis '28

The Black Hills in South Dakota are the oldest mountain range in the United States. They are about 1.8 million years old and are named after the dark color of the native pine forests. While best known for Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills contain so much more than the famous carving.


The Badlands are known for unique land formations. An ancient inland sea made the base layer with volcanic activity and sediment from rivers and streams.  Over time, floods, winds, and water led to erosions, forming the interesting shapes and colors that we see today. The fossil remains of ancient sea creatures are on display in area museums. Humans settled in the area after crossing the Bering Strait 11,000 years ago. They left behind petroglyphs which can be seen all over the Black Hills. Later it became home to the Sioux or Lakota Native American tribes.  


General George Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills in 1874, leading to a gold rush and the creation of multiple towns all over the area, such as the lawless town of Deadwood that hosted Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane.  You can visit these towns and even the old gold mines, such as Homestake Mine–the largest and deepest gold mine in North America.  It’s a really cool mine that is 1.5 miles deep and has made about 2.8 million pounds of gold.  Scientists now use it as a lab to study neutrinos and dark matter particles.


There are multiple caves and an archeological site. Wind Cave National Park has the largest amount of Boxwork in the world, a rare honeycomb pattern made from thin blades.  Jewel Cave is the 3rd longest cave in the world and is filled with crystals. Nearby, Mammoth Site of Hot Springs has the world’s largest amount of mammoth remains on display. The site is still active, so you can watch archeologists digging while touring the excavation site.


Of course, a visit to South Dakota is not complete without visiting Mount Rushmore containing the sculptures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.  It’s an awesome site, but did you know that it was never actually finished? The project ran low on money at the same time that its sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, died. Then the United States entered WWII which led to work on the monument ending. Yet Mount Rushmore isn’t the only big carving in the Black Hills.  There is a newer and even larger monument being made called the Crazy Horse Memorial that shows the famous Lakota warrior and chief on his horse. 


Traveling through the Black Hills will also bring you through multiple national parks.  The most famous is Custer State Park where you can see lots of wildlife, including the largest bison herds in the world, prairies dogs, coyotes, deer, elk, and lots more!  The bison herds are really impressive, but don’t get too close!  Drive Needles Highway through the park taking winding roads to see cool granite formations and lots of forests.


In conclusion, if you’re in search of a cool place to visit, South Dakota has it all and then some!