Like most people we wanted to take the kids to see Mount Rushmore. At the time our rig didn’t have a grey water tank and the nearest RV Park with full hookups, which was remotely in our budget, was located thirty minutes away in Custer, South Dakota. We didn’t really know much about the area but we found a mother lode of tourist treasures in Custer.
Our first unexpected find near Custer was Wind Cave National Park. We literally found this when driving by it. This discovery also led to an online search and the rest of our sweet finds. Keep in mind that the Caves in the National Park System charge a fee for each tour. On certain days of the year they offer free tours all day and due to this policy we got two tours through Wind Cave. Wind Cave is the 5th longest cave in the world, as of today. The day before we arrived it lost it’s designation as the 4th longest due to exploration at another cave.
Wind Cave is part of the history of the Sioux Tribe. It is considered sacred to them, as it is part of their origin story. I don’t know if it’s a tradition but sometime before we arrived the Lakota had a ceremony blessing Wind Cave and leaving these prayer flags.
The first white men to find the Natural Entrance to Wind Cave were the Bingham brothers, Tom and Jesse. However, it was a young Alvin McDonald that started a journal to record accounts of the explorations in the cave. Between his writings and artifacts found in the cave, it is estimated he uncovered between 5-8 miles before dying at the age of 20.
It is estimated that less than 5% of Wind Cave has been explored. They have found many interesting things like extremely pure water but what Wind Cave is known for is Boxwork. Boxwork is a rare cave formation and Wind Cave has more of it than any other cave.
To this day, Wind Cave is still our favorite cave. It is intimate (small) enough to give you a real sense of adventure. You will be ducking, crouching, and staring as you walk through this cave. If you are really lucky, you’ll get a Cave Kiss.
Our next adventure was a trip into Custer State Park. I hope you have about three or four days for the visit. We paid a one-time fee for a full week of access to this state park and the park is something to behold. The prairie dogs playing the in fields, the breeze blowing the grasses in the fields, the bison rolling in the grass and the scenic vistas will take you to a place of peace and wonder. Please, pretty please, if you get the chance, get off the paved road. This place is a surprise waiting for discovery.
On another day, we decided to head back into the park to do something called The Needles Highway. We had no idea exactly what it was BUT we had been told to give it a try. If you have it, put the sport mode on for that camera, tell your driver to go as slow as he safely can, roll that window down, and start snapping.
Just one warning to those of you with larger tow vehicles, on the Needles Highway there are two of these. You might want to check the height and width requirements but if you fit, pull in those tow mirrors and drive really slow! We cleared it in our truck by mere inches.
At one point on the Needles Highway we came upon this sight at Lake Sylvan. People, get out of your cars. Take a hike around the lake, you just might find it worth the effort and the exercise.
We had such a blast at Wind Cave that we decided to try the other cave near Custer. This one goes by the name of Jewel Cave. Jewel Cave National Monument is the “newer” of the caves in terms of discovery and incorporation into the National Park System. It is also the 2nd longest cave in the world. The estimate of explored cave was once again below 5% (wiki has it at 2%). I asked if it was possible for Wind and Jewel Caves to be connected but the ranger said it unlikely. I guess that’s one question for the future…
Jewel Cave has undergone some heavy improvements. Our tour was conducted on a system of metal walkways and platforms and it seemed to remove you a bit from the experience. Jewel Cave doesn’t have much, if any, boxwork but it has tons of Flowstone. he kids thought this looked like Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean; apparently they aren’t the only ones as the Ranger says he’s heard that one before.
The Ranger that led our tour talked a bit about exploration in Jewel Cave. You have to be able to fit through an opening that is very easy for an eight year old but might be challenging for the average adult carrying all the necessary gear. He also stressed that everything carried in must get carried out and I do mean everything.
For all you bacon lovers out there, here is some Cave Bacon but I don’t recommend trying to eat it. Jewel Cave claims to have one of the best examples of Cave Bacon.
Now for the actual reason we visited the area, Mount Rushmore. One thing we learned with the cave tours was how having a tour guide could make things come to life for you. This could not be more true than here at Mount Rushmore. We had a seventh grade History schoolteacher for our guide. Honestly, I remember more about that walk than the rest of the entire visit. For instance, if you want spectacular photos it’s better to visit Mount Rushmore in the mornings and Crazy Horse in the afternoon, which was the opposite of how we did it. He explained how the Presidents on Mount Rushmore got chosen. He gave lively quotes from their speeches and told the story of how one of the presidents got moved due to instability in the rocks where he was being blasted.
They have a sculptor’s workshop where they explain how the work was done.
Sadly, we forgot got to charge our camera before going to Crazy Horse so our pictures are limited from the experience. We learned that Mount Rushmore will fit in Crazy Horse’s Hair and they are still blasting off rock bits at Crazy Horse. If you are lucky you can attend a nighttime blasting and I hear they are a sight to see. The Crazy Horse Memorial has always been a private enterprise and accomplished via donations and admission fees. The government offered to take over the blasting of Crazy Horse but the family in charge refused. They wanted to ensure more than just the blasting. They wanted to make sure the culture and heritage was represented as well.
Don’t just assume that it’s about the mountain. Crazy Horse has a great museum, stalls for Native Americans to sell their goods, and a place to eat.
Then the camera died…
While here don’t forget to visit the town of Custer as there are many things to see and do. If it’s a souvenir you want, get on your walking shoes as you can spend a few hours meandering through the gift shops. At the time of our visit, they had a wonderful quilt shop, a candy store and several rock shops as well. The old courthouse has been converted into a local museum that starts in the basement and goes up to the actual courtroom upstairs. If you are into architecture stop by the Post Office for some stamps. It is old and simply gorgeous. The local store even carries some organic foods if you are so inclined, as well as some really good homemade sausage.