Laural A. Bidwell
Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills author Laural Bidwell grew up in Connecticut but left the rolling hills of the east for the wide-open spaces of the American West. She first lived in Colorado Springs, then moved on to Denver before finally finding her home in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Here, Laural shares her insights on some of South Dakota’s most inspiring spots and top attractions.
Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills with Laural Bidwell
1. Describe the spirit of Mount Rushmore.
Mount Rushmore is all about big ideas. It started with one man asking a simple question: “How do we get tourists to come to this sparsely populated state in the middle of nowhere?” In typical western fashion, the answer to this simple question grew and grew until it resulted in a project that required carving an entire mountain! A tribute to artistic vision and engineering skills, visitors are fascinated with the logistics of the mountain carving. What tools and equipment were needed to carve the mountain? How many people did it take to do the work? How big is Washington’s nose? How long did it take? Where can you find a drill bit still embedded in the stone? Apart from the carving facts, the “Shrine of Democracy,” as Mount Rushmore is known, also serves as a monument to some very big thinkers. The men chosen to be honored on the carving represent the best, most visionary leaders in United States history. The stories of these men inspire a little awe and a lot of pride in the origins of our country.
2. What would people be surprised to know about Mount Rushmore?
I think most visitors are surprised to find out that Mount Rushmore was not completed. While the carving is big, the original design was bigger. All four presidents were supposed to be carved into the mountain from head to waist. When Sculptor Gutzon Borglum died, carving on the mountain was declared complete even though only the four heads were finished. The carving on Mount Rushmore today looks essentially the way it did the day that Gutzon Borglum died.
3. Explain Black Hill culture.
The gold rush, the Wild West, and the great American road trip are all apt images for the cultural energy of the Black Hills. The last Indian Wars, the last gold rush, the last open cattle ranges were all here, and weren’t all that long ago. Cowboys, Indians, miners and hospitality aren’t a part of the mythology of the west here, they are an everyday reality. Tourism has also been a part of the hills economy and culture almost since the first mines were opened and the scenic beauty and diversity of the area sustains a population of people that love being outdoors.
4. What’s the best time of year to head for the hills?
The visitor “season” is mid-May through Mid-October. My favorite time of year here is fall, particularly September. The hills aren’t as busy, but most of the parks and activities are still open. The weather is beautiful - with warm days and cool nights and the elk are bugling. June is another favorite just because the hills are at their greenest and the prairie and mountain wild flowers are blooming. A caveat: If you aren’t into the wild side of the Black Hills, you might want to avoid visiting during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in early August (If you love motorcycles, rock concerts and rowdy bars, it’s the best time to visit…). It’s great fun, but it is a bit noisy!
5. What’s the best way travelers can immerse themselves in the culture and history of the region?
Think Prairie Edge, Crazy Horse Mountain, Pow-wows and a “step-on” Native led tour of the Pine Ridge Reservation or sacred sites in the hills themselves for Native American culture and history. For everything else? Wander. From the warm springs, Mammoth Site and spa culture of the southern hills to the wild west gambling and gun fighting spirit of the northern hills, each region has a unique set of attractions to offer visitors.
6. For those looking for low-key outdoor activities, what would you recommend?
At the lowest level of activity in the hills, I love dining outdoors and we have some great “deck dining” locations here. Some of my favorites include the back patio of the Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer State Park for the views; the porch of the Alpine Inn in Hill City for its German menu and for super people watching; the outdoor tables at Prairie Berry Winery for wine and gourmet cheeses; the top of the Rushmore Tramway in Keystone for beautiful gardens, brats, beers and an interesting view of Mount Rushmore; the back deck of the Latchstring Inn in Spearfish Canyon, another place to go for the views (and the waterfalls); and the sidewalk café of The Wine Cellar in Rapid City, a marvelous place to take a break from downtown shopping and gallery hopping.
7. Where are the best wildlife viewing opportunities?
There are two exceptionally good places to view wildlife in the Black Hills and both are located in the southern hills where the low rolling hills and broader vistas make wildlife easy to spot. Drive the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park in the early morning or at dusk and you are sure to see deer, prairie dogs, bison and pronghorns. You might catch sight of a coyote or even an elk! And while they aren’t exactly wild, the feral park burros are a delight. While it is generally thought of as an underground attraction, Wind Cave National Park is also superb for viewing wildlife. Look for bison, prairie dogs, deer and pronghorns in this area as well.
8. Are there any old hotels and diners that visitors should make sure to check out?
The Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City combines German Tudor Architecture and Native American décor. A major renovation of the hotel was completed early in 2010 and beautifully restored the hotel to its 1920’s splendor. The Bullock Hotel in Deadwood is another grand hotel. The hotel was built by Seth Bullock, a successful businessman and the first sheriff of the town. His ghost, it is said, still supervises the staff from time to time. The Dakota Dream Bed and Breakfast in Hot Springs was built in 1891 as the Sioux City Gentlemen’s Gaming Club. Guests report that the B&B receives night time visits from a couple of perfumed ladies who may or may not have been part of the entertainment at the club.
9. What are some of the top family-friendly attractions in the region?
Family friendly is one of the key attributes of the Black Hills and there are several great attractions for kids of all ages. Some of my favorites include the Mammoth Site, Evans Plunge, Reptile Gardens, Cave Tours at either Wind Cave or Jewel Cave and the great outdoors for hiking, horseback riding, paddle boating and mini-golf!
10. Aside from Mount Rushmore, what are your top three things to do in the Black Hills region?
a. Custer State Park is a must. The lodges are beautiful, the Wildlife Loop Road is a great place to see wildlife and the Needles Highway is my favorite of the many scenic byways in the hills. Oh, and I love the wild burros.
b. Reptile Gardens, as mentioned earlier, is the best roadside attraction!
c. Let’s not forget the Badlands National Park – this moonscape on the plains is an easy day trip from Rapid City and has plenty of easy hikes and scenic overlooks. And when you have finished touring the park, spend some time at the famous Wall Drug. Have some donuts, enjoy the western artwork and take advantage of the fantastic photo ops with the kids - roaring dinosaurs and giant jackalopes, saddled up and ready to ride.