Needles Highway, Black Hills, South Dakota

The Stunning Vistas of Needles Highway

“Go outside and try to recapture the happiness within yourself; think of all the beauty in yourself and in everything around you and be happy”. – Anne Frank

No visit to the Black Hills of South Dakota is complete without a drive through the impressive Needles Highway. Designed in 1919 by Peter Norbeck (an American politician from South Dakota who is most famous for commissioning Mount Rushmore) the 14-mile highway meanders through a vast web of spires and pointed, needle-shaped rock formations that look like they are launching off to space. There are several turnouts along the road where you can get out and do some fabulous hikes. However, even just pulling over to take in the view of the massive rock formations is enough to make it worth your while.

It took two years and 150,000 pounds of dynamite to make the Needles Highway. Engineers at the time thought it would be impossible to carve out a road through such wild land yet Norbeck proved them wrong. Finally some of the most gorgeous untouched land of the Black Hills was available for the world to see and enjoy. But not without a cost.

The most dramatic, awe-inspiring way to travel the Needles Highway is from south to north. You can begin in Custer State Park and end your journey at the beautiful Sylvan Lake for a snack and a short one-mile hike around the lake. Or if you are feeling more adventurous, you can pick up the trail for Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota and experience a fantastic four-hour roundtrip hike.

Needles Highway, Black Hills, South Dakota

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Badlands National Park South Dakota

The Badlands at dusk

“In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous”. – Aristotle

There are few things in life as spectacular as a sunset. Sunset tends to be my favorite time of day, as the light casts shadows and rays of brilliant, ever-changing colors across the horizon. It is hard to decide whether I prefer watching the sunset over water or land. Each has it own set of attributes and wonder.

The last day of our summer vacation to South Dakota was rewarded with a magical sunset over the Badlands. The utter, surreal beauty of this vast land of jagged buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires seemed to come to life as the sun set. Although it only lasted a short while, it was by far the highlight of our week-long trip.

Badlands National Park South Dakota

We left our hotel shortly after dinner and drove into the deserted Badlands National Park. Most of the day tourists had come and gone and we had the entire place to ourselves. It had cooled down to a delightful temperature, much more conducive to hiking than during the hot, shadeless afternoon scorch of July heat. Our only obstacle was time. We only would have an hour to hike until it was completely dark.

The views were astounding and the rock formations became even more colorful as the sun dipped further below the horizon. The deep maroon-hued rings of sediment became even more dramatic with sunset. During the daytime, you can hardly see them but at night the rocks looked like candy cane stripes.

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Custer State Park, South Dakota

Bison Crossing at Custer State Park

“Then she gave something to the chief, and it was a pipe with a bison calf carved on one side to mean the earth that bears and feeds us, and with twelve eagle feathers hanging from the stem to mean the sky and the twelve moons, and these were tied with a grass that never breaks”. – Black Elk

The joy of any driving trip through Custer State Park in South Dakota is the sighting of the Great American Bison. Once a prominent presence throughout this landscape, today their numbers are sadly dwindling. At the height of the bison population, there were over 30 million of them roaming the grasslands of North America. However, the arrival of European settlers and the desecration of Native American communities and territories significantly reduced the bison population to almost extinction. We almost lost one of the greatest symbols and species of the American West.

Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota is a special place because it is one of the only truly wild places left in the United States where bison roam free. In fact, there are nearly 1,300 of these magnificent beasts wandering about the parks 71,000 acres.

During a family vacation to South Dakota last summer, we spent many hours driving through the beautiful, winding roads of Custer State Park. Yet it was not until our last day while driving along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop of prairie land that we finally encountered our first bison.

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Driving along the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park

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Badlands National Park South Dakota

Capturing the out of this world beauty of the Badlands

“In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous”. – Aristotle

Last July, we decided to take a different kind of family vacation and headed west to South Dakota. Our trip brought us to such national treasures as Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands National Park. I’d never been to the Badlands before yet had heard that this remote part of South Dakota is worth the trip for its unusual beauty. Although the drive there is long and uneventful, once you arrive, this striking landscape of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires takes your breath away. It is quite unlike any other place I’ve ever seen.

The Lakota (the indigenous people who inhabited this area) gave this land its name, “mako sica” which means “land bad“. The Badlands was delegated a national monument in 1939 and a national park in 1976 after reaching an agreement with the Oglala Lakota. Today, the Badlands National Park welcomes visitors and paleontologists from around the world who come to see and study this magical landscape of eroded sedimentary layers of rocks that holds fossils dating back millions of years in time.

Heading on 90 East from Custer State Park to the Badlands

Heading on 90 East from Custer State Park to the Badlands

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The Crazy Horse Memorial South Dakota

Pride and Hope at the Crazy Horse Memorial

“By carving Crazy Horse, if I can give back to the Indian some of his pride and create a means to keep alive his culture and heritage, my life will have been worthwile.” – Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski

Soaring proudly above the Black Hills of South Dakota lies perhaps one of the most impressive monuments-in-progress of all time: The Crazy Horse Memorial. Once completed, the Crazy Horse Memorial will be the largest mountain carving in the world and one of the only monuments to honor America’s Native American past, the Lakota leader Crazy Horse.

The Crazy Horse Memorial South Dakota

I had honestly never heard of the Crazy Horse Memorial until venturing out to the Black Hills of South Dakota this past June. With a guidebook in hand and plenty of recommendations from friends, we decided to make it quick stop at Crazy Horse after our drive through the Needles Highway. Little did I realize, the Crazy Horse Memorial would blow me away, even more so than the better known Mount Rushmore.

The Crazy Horse Memorial South Dakota

Driving up to the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The Black Hills of South Dakota are sacred to the Lakota people who rightfully and lawfully owned the land until it was taken away six months after gold was discovered near French Creek. The discovery of gold brought thousands of opportunistic miners from all over the country to the plains of South Dakota resulting in the Indian Wars of death and destruction to the Lakota people. Their way of life died along with the many innocent people who lost their lives in battle. Crazy Horse was one of the most heroic leaders and warriors who fought until his death in 1877 for protecting their land. Crazy Horse became a symbol of all that they had lost.

“One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk.” – Crazy Horse

The Crazy Horse Memorial South Dakota

From a distance, you can see how incredibly large the monument will be once completed. It is quite impressive!

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Harney Peak, South Dakota

Beneath your Feet: The Hike to Harney Peak

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious”. – Stephen Hawking

I have always been an explorer and grew up doing most of my adventuring on my feet. Every fall, my parents packed up the diesel station wagon with the three of us kids, our Irish Setter Tasha, and enough stuff for a long weekend to spend up north. We drove five hours north of Minneapolis to stay in the beautiful town of Lutsen, located right on Lake Superior and not far from the famous Boundary Waters and Canoe Area. Every Saturday we would pack our backpacks, jump in the car again and drive to Eagle Mountain, the tallest peak in Minnesota and do a family four-to-five-hour hike. It was a tradition we did every single year of my childhood, just as the leaves turned their magnificent display of color.

Eagle Mountain, Minnesota

My Dad and Max on top of Eagle Mountain. June 2015.

It is funny how those special memories of childhood stay with you for the rest of your life. Hiking Eagle Mountain each year developed a lifelong love of the outdoors and trekking. It has led me most recently to the peak of Kilimanjaro to the beauty of Patagonia, Bolivia, France, Nepal and many times of hikes in Arizona.

My love of hiking and exploring what is beneath my feet is so strong that as a mother I have wanted to instill my passion on my children. We started out small with hikes around different state parks in Minnesota and even walks around my beloved Lake Harriet. Then on our last visit to Arizona where my parents live and there are endless opportunities to hike, we brought the kids to Sabino Canyon and my son Max did a longer, five hour hike with my husband and dad. Finally, just this past June my son Max (who is ten now) did his second climb of Eagle Mountain and did it all along with Papa. It was a special trip!

My next task was to get my daughter Sophia engaged and inspired to hike. She is only 8 but fairly athletic if she puts her mind to it. Our opportunity for our first real family hike was this past June during our trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. There rises Harney Peak, the tallest mountain in the state at an elevation of 7242 feet (2207 m).

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Mount Rushmore

The Great American Road Trip: Mount Rushmore

A road trip to South Dakota is the real deal and nothing can be more honored or treasured than a visit to Mount Rushmore, an iconic symbol of American freedom and democracy. Inspired and built during the age of the automobile, Mount Rushmore was the brainchild of two men, Doane Robinson, the visionary and Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor.

Robinson had fallen in love with the beautiful grassy plains, rolling hills and epic beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota. He was also passionate about South Dakota’s history and eventually left his law practice to work as the state historian. Wanting to draw more tourists to South Dakota, Robinson came up with the idea of creating a major tourist attraction in the heart of the Black Hills that would draw people from all over the United States to come visit. What seemed like a far-fetched fantasy soon became a reality when Robinson met  renown sculptor Gutzon Borglum who had studied in Europe and was a true genius.

Partnering with Borglum, work on Mount Rushmore began in 1927 and lasted 14 years until Borglum’s death. A team of over 400 workers under the watchful eye and direction of Borglum helped carve the 60-feet high faces of four of America’s most beloved presidents, our founding fathers: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Mount Rushmore

First glimpse of Mount Rushmore

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The Great American Road trip: Part 1

I have always been a traveler and my love of travel started as a child. Growing up, my parents took us everywhere and most of the time, our primary mode of transportation (to our chagrin) was via our 1970s wood-paneled diesel station wagon. Our boisterous family of five and sometimes the family dog, piled into the car well before car seats, electronics and any sort of sensible kind of entertainment, and drove from the depths of Minnesota to such far away places as Orlando, Los Angeles, Montana, Wyoming, the south of Texas and even Mexico.

The three of us kids fought like cats and dogs, and looking back I have no idea how on earth my parents survived. To me, the memories of the unending whining, complaining, fighting, boredom and “are we there yet’s” would have driven me mad. I am shocked that they didn’t leave the three of us miserable children on the side of the road. Yet of course they got through the ups and downs of our annual road trips and I have many fond memories of the travels we made.

I would not be lying, however, in saying that I hesitated long and hard before embarking on our own family road trip. For a girl who likes to travel, I loathe being in the car on the long, endless roads of America. I’d much rather be on an airplane or a train where I can get up and down and move around instead of being crammed into an uncomfortable seat for hours staring at farms and roadways. I can’t read in a car because I get carsick so it is either a lot of talking or just sitting there bored silly. The kids seem to do fine thanks to the invention of the portable DVD player and electronic devices. It is me who goes crazy.

As a family, we have done some relatively short road trips to neighboring Wisconsin or even the six and a half hour drive to Chicago. But we held off as long as we could before we were truly ready to embark on the “Great American Road Trip“. I call it that because Americans tend to love their cars and they love road trips. Many families pile their kids into the car once school lets out for the summer and do a roadie somewhere. As uneasy as I felt about it, I decided it was finally our time to experience the highs and lows of a road trip. If I hated it, we wouldn’t do another one again. If I loved it, well then the road is endless.

Heading west

Heading west

We packed up our car to the rim with stuff, loaded up on movies and books on tape for the kids, and hit the road driving west to the Black Hills of South Dakota, famous for Mount Rushmore and the gateway to the wild west of Yellowstone National Park and Colorado. I had been on that trip decades ago myself as a ten-year-old child and was curious what it would be like 30 years later as a mother myself.

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