Mt. Rushmore & Wind Cave National Park

National Park Number: 3 of 59

For no good reason at all, I expected Mt. Rushmore to be lame. I thought it would be kind of small and the area would be kind of crowded and the parking would be kind of expensive, and I thought I’d be glad I’d seen it but not eager to go back.

I was so wrong.

We got to the monument early in the evening and I don’t know if it was our timing in the day or our timing in the season, but there was no fee for parking and hardly anyone else there. The light was gorgeous, the surrounding area was gorgeous, and the monument itself was pretty spectacular.

I have mixed feelings about this, because Mt. Rushmore is a complicated place. While there, it’s hard to escape the irony that the Lakota’s most sacred spot has got four U.S. President’s heads carved right into it. And don’t get me wrong, they are four very good Presidents. But still, I think it’s worth acknowledging that considered patriotism comes with some pretty complex feelings sometimes. Mt. Rushmore is sort of a perfect encapsulation of America’s tendency to carve our legacy in proverbial mountainsides, forgetting or ignoring that before westward expansion and manifest destiny and the worship of the rugged individual, entire civilizations lived and thrived here, with a relationship to the land that we should learn from. Every park has a Native history, and I appreciate whenever those histories are included in the narrative of the park, though I do wish there was more emphasis.

That said, we did feel patriotic. We mosied the Presidential Trail, made friends with our fellow monument-goers, and watched the sun set over the Black Hills. The area was so stunning we knew we wanted to see more of it, so the next day we got an early start driving the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.

Not that I’m an expert in Scenic Byways, but this has got to be one of America’s best. Hairpin roads, granite formations, tunnels that frame views of Mt. Rushmore, and endless views of gorgeous forest.

The byway continues into Custer State Park, a prairie grassland like Badlands, but with rolling hills and lots of trees. We saw tons of bison, prairie dog towns, and bighorn sheep, plus we met some very friendly burros.

By the time we got to Wind Cave NP, we were pretty well dazzled with what we’d found above ground, so we focused our time in the park on its subterranean delights.

One of our favorite things at each park we’ve visited has been watching the park intro. video at the visitors center. In general, we are becoming obsessed with park rangers, who have proven to be some of the coolest people we’ve ever encountered, and who appear in the intro. videos in their most passionate, nerdy, awesome forms. At Wind Cave, the video gave us our bearings on the park while we waited for our tour of the cave to start; then we checked out some of the fabulously 80s exhibits at the center, then finally began our tour.

Wind Cave offers several different tour types, including some specialty ones that sound, frankly, terrifying (they involve candlelight and/or crawling through tiny, oppressive tunnels). We went on the Natural Entrance Tour and it was just our speed, with a good overview of the formations in the cave, a solid amount of time spent underground, and no claustrophobic crawling required.

Wind Cave is one of the longest caves in the world, and only about 5% of it has been explored. Its first documented discovery was in 1881 when two brothers going by noticed wind coming out of a hole in the rock. As the story goes, the wind was so strong it blew one of the brother’s hats off. That hole is the only natural opening of the cave.

The cave is notable for both its size and its formations: the calcite boxwork, frostwork like tiny stone icicles, and cave popcorn. The tour guide focused mainly on early explorations of the cave and the history of Alvin McDonald, who explored and documented the cave so extensively during his late teens that 70 years passed between his death at age 20 and the discovery of the next major passageway in the cave.

That evening on our way out of South Dakota, we took the Spearfish Scenic Byway to soak in what we could of the Black Hills before we left. We would absolutely recommend the drive. This whole area of SD really blew us away; we had no idea what a gorgeous slice of America is tucked away here.

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