Monumental Road Trip

All-American sights pop up everywhere in the scenic Black Hills area.

South Dakota

July 31, 2005|By Tom Uhlenbrock | Tom Uhlenbrock,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

This is an all-American road trip, filled with cowboys and Indians, buffalo and prairie dogs, and dreamers foolish enough to think they could homestead on the Badlands or blast four presidential faces into a granite cliff of the Black Hills.

Within an hour's drive of Rapid City, in the southwestern corner of South Dakota, are so many national parks, memorials, monuments and forests that five days was not enough time to cover them all, especially with detours at scenic turnouts, historical markers and roadside attractions.

But we were in no hurry, which was fine, because the roads twist and turn and feature tunnels burrowed through mountains and wood "pigtail" bridges that do a triple corkscrew spiral like an amusement park ride. Round the next bend slowly, because you may run into a wildlife roadblock with pronghorn antelope sauntering across or buffalo refusing to budge.

It's no wonder that nearby Sturgis is a haven for motorcyclists. This country is built for a Harley, or at least a Porsche convertible.

The 60-mile Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is named for the South Dakota governor and U.S. senator who fathered Custer State Park in 1919 and challenged engineers to build roads through the mountains to get to it.

"You're not supposed to drive here at 60 miles an hour," Norbeck said back then of the curving pavement. "To do the scenery half justice, people should drive at 20 or under; to do it full justice, they should get out and walk."

We started by flying into Rapid City for an overnight stay at the historic Hotel Alex Johnson, itself a testament to one man's dream. Johnson was a railroader who had a flair for luxury and an appreciation of the American Indian culture.

The 143-room hotel opened in 1928, billed as the "Showplace of the West," with a solarium on the 10th floor and Indian motifs throughout. Waitresses in cowgirl outfits worked the revolving Carousel Lounge. The lounge is long gone, but the hotel retains its frontier ambience, with Johnson's portrait in a beaded war shirt and feathered bonnet hanging above the stone fireplace in the lobby.

"It's still the tallest building in Rapid City if you go to the top of the sign," said spokeswoman Cindy Olson.

Within walking distance of the hotel is the Journey Museum, the perfect place to get a feel for the history of the Black Hills. The story begins with the dinosaurs and centers on the Lakota Sioux, who used the sheltered valleys of the hills as an oasis from the winter winds that swept across the surrounding prairies. The hills, black with pines, had deer, elk and trout, and an endless flow of buffalo crossed the grasslands.

To the Sioux, the Black Hills were sacred, the "heart of everything that is." But prospectors arrived, searching in vain for gold, silver and diamonds. They were followed by settlers searching for land. The buffalo were wiped out; the Sioux were banished from the Black Hills and relegated to reservations.

The government tried to turn the Indians into farmers; missionaries tried to make them Christians. Their children were sent to boarding schools for a "civilized" education, with traditional ways forbidden. The mortal blow came in 1890 in the massacre of Indians at Wounded Knee.

"The people's dream died there, and it was a beautiful dream," said Black Elk, a Sioux spiritual leader born in 1863.

That, and more, is told in video, art and artifacts at the Journey Museum.

Waterfalls and snakes

From Rapid City, we headed out in our rental car. Although all our destinations were within 60 miles or so, the trip odometer had racked up 1,170 miles when we reported back to the airport five days later.

Fifty miles northwest of Rapid City is the town of Spearfish, which is famous for its Passion Play and Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. We took the 20-mile drive through the canyon, lined with buff-colored bluffs and the occasional waterfall. A mile-long nature walk headed around a meadow filled with berry bushes and beaver ponds to Roughlock Falls, a charming but modest splash of water.

The drive ended at the gold-rush towns of Lead and Deadwood. Deadwood is where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back by Jack McCall while holding aces and eights in a saloon card game. Fittingly, the vintage Victorian brick buildings are now filled with casinos.

Back on the highway, a billboard promoting Reptile Gardens said: "This ain't no petting zoo." The garden boasts the world's largest collection of reptiles, including "Death Row," which has cage after cage of the planet's deadliest snakes.

There are adders, cobras, kraits, mambas, rattlesnakes and vipers, several marked with a "very" before the venomous signs. Because they are well-fed and long-lived, many of the residents have achieved fearsome size. We saw an albino Burmese python that was 11 feet, 3 inches long and weighed 110 pounds.

If snakes are not your bag, Reptile Gardens also has dozing giant tortoises, cuddly prairie dogs, a wax-faced gypsy fortune teller and a basketball-playing chicken.

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