The Legendary Black Hills

Touring the Black Hills with a South Dakota rancher.
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Touring the Black Hills with a South Dakota rancher.
DakotaBadlands

A pickup with a bumper sticker that reads, “Eat beef—the West wasn’t won on salad,” passes as my husband Tyler and I travel west on our way to a cattlemen’s meeting. I’m reminded to call and make reservations for the evening at Dakotah Steakhouse in Rapid City, where we plan to bunk down for the night.

It’s a rare occurrence for Tyler and I to leave the ranch—after all, we’re busy expanding our cattle operation while raising two children who will, hopefully, be the sixth generation in our family to be involved in the beef business. Yet, we are excited to take a few days to attend this meeting. Not only is it important we’re in attendance to discuss industry issues, it’s also a chance for us to explore Western South Dakota and take a minute to appreciate our cowboy roots.

For a lot of modern cowboys (and city slickers, too), the allure of the Wild West is as strong as it was 100 years ago. From Lewis and Clark’s first expedition, to Custer’s Last Stand and prospectors hoping to strike gold, and homesteaders working to tame the soil—the Dakota territory has a rich history of legendary figures who fought hard to call a piece of this beautiful place home, and evidence of these people still remains in the Black Hills today.

Along this quiet stretch of interstate, I can feel the intrigue of the Wild West consuming my thoughts, and I’m giddy with the idea of spending a few days in the rough and romantic Black Hills.

“Only 13 more miles until Wall Drug,” I tell my husband as we pass yet another billboard posted along the interstate promoting perhaps one of the West’s most famous tourist stops.

“Let’s stop and stretch our legs, and maybe get that free glass of ice water they keep promising,” Tyler says with a smirk.

We pull into Wall Drug, and we’re transported back to 1931 when Ted and Dorothy Hustead opened up shop in the town of Wall. After years of struggling, they finally found success by offering free ice water to weary travelers. Billboards from Minnesota to Wyoming remind folks not to miss the hole-in-the-wall stop on their way to Mount Rushmore.

We’re greeted warmly by current owner and Ted’s grandson, Rick Hustead, and his daughter, Sarah. Once a modest pharmacy shop, today, Wall Drug is a massive 76,000-square-foot facility. Rick and Sarah walk us through and point out various collections of Americana—vintage signs, Western paintings, wood carvings, old guns, mounted animals, and more—which seem to capture everything about the American cowboy we know and love.

“My dad, Bill, loved everything about cowboy life,” Rick tells us, pointing to a portrait of his father outfitted in traditional cowboy garb. “It shows in the Western collections he sought that are now on display at Wall Drug.”

“People are truly enamored with the American cowboy” Sarah adds. “The image of the rough and tough cowboy has been glamorized in the movies, and people flock [here] to see that image come to life.”

Before leaving, we enjoy the well-advertised ice water, as well as the café’s best-selling maple donuts. We thank the Husteads for the tour and hit the road again, eager for the next stop on our journey.

• • •

Back on the interstate, the terrain changes dramatically from flat plains to jagged cliffs, deep gullies, and sharp buttes—it’s the Badlands, and they are gorgeous. We make a spontaneous decision to postpone our supper plans and watch the sun set along the Badlands Loop Road.

The 60-minute scenic route offers us the perfect vantage point to see bison, bighorn sheep, antelope, and prairie dogs roam, while enjoying the awe-inspiring views as the sun sets across the canyons.

We park at the Pinnacles Overlook to enjoy the evening sky, where we meet a young family from Pennsylvania.

“It’s other-wordly here,” the mom says to me as she watches her children run along the pink- and sand-colored rocks. “It’s like stepping on the moon,” I reply in agreement.

The 244,000-acre park was once home to three-toed horses, saber-toothed cats, and prehistoric marine animals. Such creatures no longer roam here, yet it remains completely breath-taking.

At the Ben Reifel Visitor Center located within Badlands National Park, Ed Welsh, park ranger and paleontologist, speaks to a crowd of tourists and details the journeys of the French-Canadian fur traders who passed through the Badlands on their way to Nebraska.

“The fur traders were able to cut miles off their trail by using Haydens Geological Survey to guide them through the Badlands,” Welsh tells us.

The survey, conducted by geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, on behalf of the United States, documented much of the Great Plains and the Western territory, including the Badlands, for Americans eager to journey West.

We learn that even before Hayden came along and mapped out the area, travelers followed an old trail running along the western edge of the Badlands that dates back to the early 1830s. The trail was used by trappers and traders to transport goods and supplies from Fort Laramie to Fort Pierre, and I imagine the utter loneliness they must have felt passing through this desolate and dangerous landscape.

Time starts to slip away from us as we dig deeper into the history of the Badlands, and we easily could have spent hours listening to Welsh regale tales of the past. However, it’s getting late, and we still have our supper reservation to make.

• • •

We snap back to the modern world as the bright lights of Rapid City—the state’s second largest city with a population of 72,638—emerge in the distance. We can see the faint outline of the Black Hills on the horizon, and we take the exit for our hotel and the Dakotah Steakhouse.

As beef producers, it’s hard to beat the home-raised steaks in our own deep freezer, but this restaurant gets the job done. We both agree the $49 price tag on the Cowboy Bone-In Ribeye is well worth it, and just as the menu promises, the steak, which is served with a Flinstone-esque rib still attached, is truly “eye-popping,” and made for “a hungry cowboy, maybe two.”

An elderly couple next to us also ordered the cowboy ribeyes, and we all laugh as the gentleman playfully picks up his steak by the long, curving rib bone and waves it around. His wife, embarrassed, but obviously used to her husband’s antics, scolds him to put his steak back on his plate.

“Man, the beef is good here! I think this is the best steak I’ve ever tasted,” he exclaims, and we agree. The woman asks me to snap a photo of the pair with their steaks and our conversation turns to our ranch back home, where we invite our new friends to stop in for a tour, if they ever get to our neck of the woods.

“It’s been great to meet some real cowboys,” the man tells us before we part.

Yes, it is pretty great to be a cowboy, I think to myself. After a day like today, it’s easy to see why so many flock to South Dakota to experience some of our Western traditions.

• • •

Credit: Donald F. Montileaux
"Charging Buffalo, Lakota Warrior" on 1897 justice's docket by master ledger artist Donald F. Montileaux (Oglala Lakota). 

SouthDakotaArt

Close to our hotel is the Prairie Edge Trading Company and Gallery, which hosts a gorgeous collection of artwork from contemporary Native American artists. Paintings, sculptures, lamps, tables, bison hides, and wind catchers adorn the walls of the gallery.

While browsing the shop, I notice a sketch of a bison herd drawn on ledger paper. The bison appear to be running over the straight rows and columns of the accounting paper.

“It’s called ledger art,” says Rose Kern, who is a fixture at the gallery. “It started when Native Americans used old accounting ledger books to record their stories while they were imprisoned by the U.S. government.”

She tells us about ongoing conflicts and the oppression the Native Americans have endured throughout the last 150 years.

“The struggle between the U.S. government and the Native Americans hasn’t gone away,” she says. “However, the Dakotas can be a harsh place to live. When a blizzard blows through this area, it doesn’t care about the color of your skin. That’s when this community shines—everyone comes together to help each other get through the storm.”

Rose gives us much to think about as we leave the store and head to Keystone and the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. As the iconic memorial comes into view in the middle of the beautiful Black Hills, I’m reminded of battles lost and won, of America’s rich history, and that how—no matter what our individual stories are or where our ancestors came from—we are all a part of the fabric that makes this nation great.

• • •

No matter how many times I visit the granite monument that honors four of our nation’s most iconic U.S. presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln—I’m still in awe of the beauty and power of Mount Rushmore.

Still, I find myself most drawn to humble Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th president. A cowboy and a naturalist, Roosevelt made conservation a top priority of his presidency, and he was the first to establish national parks with the goal of preserving the nation’s natural resources. An avid horse rider who was well-known and loved for being tough, masculine, and “carrying a big stick,” Roosevelt believed national forests should be saved for multiple uses, including livestock grazing; timber production; habitat for threatened and endangered plants, wildlife, and fish; clean air and water; and recreational activities such as hunting, hiking, and fishing.

Today, Black Hills National Forest contains more than 1.2 million acres in Wyoming and South Dakota. Established in 1897, it is managed for these multiple uses, including grazing, as Roosevelt intended. Annually, the forest provides rangelands for 22,500 head of cattle.

Rancher Travis Bies of Rapid City runs his cattle on 60,000 acres within Black Hills National Forest.

“My family has been in the Black Hills since the late 1800s,” he tells us. “I can see Mount Rushmore from our farmhouse.”

Bies explains how ranching families who have grazing permits for the Black Hills work hard to protect springs, maintain fences, and other improvement projects that he says benefit the land, cattle, wildlife, and the visiting public.

“Black Hills National Forest is absolutely beautiful,” he says. “If you truly appreciate the land, living out here never gets boring.”

The Bies ranch is located in the exact spot where Custer and the U.S. Army led an expedition, which was photographed by William H. Illingworth, who accompanied Custer’s party during the trip.

“I can go up to the spot where Custer’s expedition went through our ranch, and I can look at Illingworth’s photograph and see the same trees and rocks from the picture. Sometimes I go up there and sit, and if I listen close enough, I can almost hear the 7th U.S. Calvary coming through.”

• • •

Crazy Horse Memorial

As we drive from Mount Rushmore to Crazy Horse Memorial in Custer, I think about what Bies had to say. Can history really come to life if we pay close enough attention? What would our ancestors want to tell us if we stopped to listen?

The monument is still largely under construction. Only Crazy Horse’s face and long arm and pointed index finger are emerging from the rock. His statuesque frame and his horse have yet to be carved into the stone. Once completed, the sculpture may become the world’s largest, with the head measuring 87 feet, compared to the U.S. Presidents’ heads at Mount Rushmore, which are 60 feet.

Walking into the visitors center, we are greeted by a wall of solemn faces—portraits of the last remaining survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Striking images of famous Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, such as Pemmican, Little Soldier, Dewey Beard, John Sitting Bull, High Eagle, Little Warrior, Iron Hawk, and Comes Again, stare down on us, reminding us that this was the peak of the tribes’ power and their greatest victory in the battle for their sacred lands.

Visitors hush as they walk through the memorial. We read American Indian testimonies from Custer’s Last Stand and feel the weight of the stories and the sadness that still clings to a war long ago lost. I am reminded that these people—the original habitants of this land—are an integral part of our nation’s rich history, and this memorial is a true testament to the Native American heritage.

• • •

We stop in Deadwood, where Old West legends like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane found fame, fortune, and trouble, and arrive just in time for the evening reenactment of Wild Bill’s death, who was shot and killed by Jack McCall while playing poker in Deadwood’s Saloon #10. The nightly performance, held at the Old Towne Hall, features the murder and McCall’s trial. We watch with delight as tourists are recruited to play parts in the gun fight, poker game, and court room drama.

Walking the brick road of this historic gold rush town, we notice the main street is mostly commercialized, and countless casinos and tourist shops are filled with people clamoring to rediscover life in this boisterous town. But as we venture the side streets, we find The Days of ’76 and the Adams House museums, each of which capture the lives and personalities of these larger-than-life, legendary figures.

We remember Bies’s advice to get off the beaten path to see what the area has to offer.

“There is a lot of history out here if you’re willing to look for it. Visit Mount Moriah’s cemetery where the legends are buried. Explore the old abandoned gold mines. Buy a history book, and if something catches your attention, chances are the historical site is on public ground and free for you to go see. 

Be willing to take the side roads and discover the history of the Old West where it really happened.”

As we head to our cattlemen’s meeting, we take with us the rich history of the cowboys who headed West into unknown territories and endeavored through harsh conditions to pursue their dreams and shape this territory into what it is today. From the jagged cliffs of the Badlands to the dense forest in the Black Hills, there are countless stories this land has to tell us.

The Wild West may look a bit different today. We can now enjoy the Black Hills as we drive along the interstate, capturing its beauty on our smartphones. Its cowboy spirit, however, will be passed on to the next generations of South Dakota ranchers.

SouthDakotaBison
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Badlands National Park 605-433-5361, nps.gov/badl

Watch a sunrise over the horizon at Badlands National Park. With stunning views of colorful canyons, jagged pinnacles, and rugged terrain, the Badlands come alive as the sun illuminates the limestone, sandstone, shale, and claystone that stripe the spectacular landscape. Imagine what life might have been like for the French-Canadian fur trappers passing through this rugged terrain in the early 1900s, who aptly called the place les mauvais terres pour traverse, or “bad lands to travel through.”

Wall Drug Store 605-279-2175, walldrug.com

As you exit the Badlands scenic loop, head for the world-famous Wall Drug Store. Just follow the billboards directing you to this quirky pit stop. By now, you’ve worked up an appetite, and owner Rick Hustead recommends the store’s “legendary hot beef sandwiches.” Browse through the fun shop and get lost in the countless Americana collections. Don’t forget to take a picture with the giant jackalope and grab a cup of free ice water on the back patio before hitting the road.

Mount Rushmore 605-754-2523, nps.gov/moru

A trip to the Black Hills wouldn’t be complete without stopping at this iconic American landmark—Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, S.D. Nearly 3 million people from around the world visit “The Faces” each year, and 2016 marked the 75th anniversary of the monument’s completion. You’ll be a history buff by the time you leave, as there is plenty to read about the lives of U.S. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

Crazy Horse 605-673-4681, crazyhorsememorial.org

The Black Hills of South Dakota is sacred ground to the Lakota, and the ongoing struggle between Native Americans and the Federal Government is best depicted at the Crazy Horse Memorial, where you can read testimonies from the surviving warriors at Custer’s Last Stand; view the ongoing monument construction; and gain a deeper understanding of the conflict that began in 1874, when Custer and his men announced their discovery of gold, which resulted in droves of prospectors flocking to the area and encroaching on sacred tribal land.

Deadwood 800-344-8826, deadwood.com
Speaking of gold, you don’t want to miss historic Deadwood, where the whiskey is plentiful, the casinos are buzzing, and visitors are still hoping to strike it rich. Shootouts on main street bring the legends of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Potato Creek Johnny, Seth Bullock, Poker Alice Tubbs, and Deadwood Dick to life. Grab a bite to eat at the Midnight Star, a restaurant and casino owned by actor Kevin Costner, and learn a little bit of movie trivia. Then, consider visiting Fort Hays, just 5 miles south of Rapid City, where Dances with Wolves (1990), starring Costner, was shot. Admission to the film set is free.