Exploring Custer, SD- Mount Rushmore and Sylvan Lake

Thursday, September 3, 2020

South Dakota’s State Motto– “Under God The People Rule

We spent three glorious days in Custer. Wow, is this part of South Dakota ever beautiful! One morning we went up to Mount Rushmore passing the still very incomplete sculpture of the Crazy Horse Memorial. The completed sculpture will have the Lakota Chief riding a horse, presumably point toward a herd of buffalo. Funding for the project comes at least partially from Indian Museum of North America, also located on premises. The museum is a must see; the Crazy Horse Memorial isn’t quite there yet.

We spend quite a bit of time admiring the work of Gutzon Borlum, the American sculptor who created the monument.

He created the design and oversaw 400 workers who sculpted the colossal 60 foot high carvings of US Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. The four President were chosen to represent the nation’s birth, growth, development and preservation, respectively.

South Dakota historian Doane Robinson is credited with conceiving the idea of carving the likenesses of noted figures into the mountains of the Black Hills to promote tourism. His initial idea was to sculpt the Needles; however Borlum rejected the idea because of the poor quality of the granite and strong opposition from the Lakota Sioux, who consider the Black Hills to be sacred ground. One must remember that the Black Hills were orginally included in the Great Sioux Reservation, then broken up afte gold was discovered there. The mountain on which it is carved is known to the Lakota as Six Grandfathers.

The sculptor and tribal representatives settle on Mt. Rushmore, which faces southeast for maximum sun exposure. Robinson wanted to feature American West heroes such as Lewis and Clark, their expedition guide Sacagawea, Chief Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody and Chief Crazy Horse. Borglum believed the sculpture should have broader appeal and chose the four Presidents.

President George Washington in profile

Peter Norbeck, US Senator from South Dakota sponsered the project and secured federal funding. Construction began in 1927, the President’s faces completed between 1934 and 1939. After Borglum died in March of 1941 his son Lincoln took over as leader of the construction project. Each President was originally to be depicted head to waist. Lack of funding ended the project on October 31, 1941. Sometimes referred to as the “Shrine of Democracy”, Mount Rushmore is visited by more than two million people a year.

Heading back to the barn we decide to take a side trip into Custer State Park- the 71,000 acre premier nature lover’s attraction of the Mt. Rushmore State. Deemed “impossible” to construct by its critics, Needles Highway (SD Hwy 87)—a National Scenic Byway—was completed in 1922. The road lies within Custer State Park, just 30 miles south of Rapid City, and is an impressive 14 mile stretch that includes sharp turns, narrow tunnels, granite spires and world class views. Needles Highway is one of three scenic routes along Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.

Hood Tunnel

We travel the Needles highway from US385 to Sylvan Lake. Climbing up the mountain we come to a tunnel. The highway is a decent two way except for it’s tunnels. At 10’6″ wide and 11’3″ high the Hood Tunnel is the widest but not the tallest passage through solid granite on this road. Remember, when this highway was constructed- 1922. Model T Fords were still king and Model A Fords weren’t produced until 1927. Modern vehicles can pass through this tunnel with adequate clearance albeit one way only. I like the way the State of South Dakota leaves the original tunnels for all to admire.

Sylvan Lake is quite unusual. Rock outcroppings on two sides really highlight this small lake. One can walk a one mile path all the way around. Most of the trail is good but ya do have to do some billy goating over rocks. The rocks cause some strife. We are trying to gain good toe holds- the dogs with four paw drive don’t have a problem so they have a tendency to pull us off balance once in a while. We made it through without shedding blood.

The trail gets a little tougher

Jil and I really like what the state has done with this park. It’s still has plenty of nature in which to ooh and aah yet also has a several lodges and campgrounds to accommodate its two million visitors.

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