The Black Hills


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t was the crack of dawn when we said adios to Sioux Falls. Our plan was to get an early start in order to reach our destination by early afternoon. The fast-paced, 90 mph, flat drive allowed the six hours to go by quickly. The landscape was a mirage of low, flat plains which transformed into more rugged rolling hills as you moved through the state. Eventually, the dry rolling hills shifted into a forest so dense that the trees look black. That is when you knew that you had entered the Black Hills.

Our drive was different than before as there were no developed towns along the way. However, we loved reading the billboards, advertising businesses hours away.  We were fascinated by decrepit wooden houses abandoned by settlers, tiny against the wild open prairie.

Firehouse Brewery Billboard with an antique fire truck.
Small abandoned wooden house among the vast prairie.

Plus I was on the lookout for Buffalo. Every hay stack, every black plastic bag blowing in the breeze, every cow, horse or bull resembled a Buffalo. Jess, however, was quick to point out that my eyes were deceiving me. Despite my diligence, I never did see one.

Crazy Horse Memorial

My husband had visited the Black Hills before in 2010. He was most excited by Crazy Horse, which amazed him 9 years ago and again this time.

A side view of the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills.
An image of the final design of the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills overlaying the sculpture as it currently stands.

Crazy Horse was started as a collaboration between the Native Americans and the white man. The project was to showcase a true Native American hero, Crazy Horse. Henry Standing Bear reached out to Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish sculptor who had just helped carve Mount Rushmore. The two men worked together to develop the project. Since there were no actual pictures of Crazy Horse, the men designed the sculpture through descriptions provided by men who had known the Lakota warrior.

Korczak started the project in 1948 and worked on it until his death in 1982. The project remains a family business as his wife continued to work on it, and after her death, his children took over. It has been in construction for over 70 years and remains in the early stages. When the sculpture is complete, it will be the largest in the world.

Aside from the mountain carving, Korczak also instituted a Native American Educational and Cultural Center to preserve the rights of American Indians.

A yellow sculpting machine used to sculpt Crazy Horse in 1948.

This photo is the original machine that Korczak used to sculpt the mountain.  Oftentimes, the machine would go “kaput” while he was on top of the mountain. Some days he would have to climb up and down many times, trying to restart the machine.

Mount Rushmore Memorial

My preconceived notions, based on others personal accounts, was that Mount Rushmore was underwhelming and smaller than one would think. However, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with patriotic pride, a pride that has teetered on the edge of a rocky cliff since the 2016 election. Looking at the stone faces of America’s greatest presidents made me realize how far our country has come and how far it still has yet to go. Our country has never been perfect, but there are so many who have sacrificed in the fight for freedom and democracy and continue to do so. Mount Rushmore is a tribute to all Americans and a standing reminder that overcoming adversity creates a more united nation.

Mount Rushmore-the stone faces of four presidents. Various nations flags guide us to the faces sitting atop of the Black Hills.

Father and son duo, Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum, sculptured Mount Rushmore into the Black Hills. The project had over 300 helpers and took 14 years (1927-1941) to complete. The sculptors choose the presidents based on their personal views of who were the most dynamic representations of America at the time.

Tip: We went in mid April, right when all of the South Dakota businesses were just starting to open their doors for the season. We booked K Bar S Lodge, a Choice Ascent hotel in Keystone, months in advance and paid $65 for one night-a steal. We were only two of approximately ten people staying there, so we had the place pretty much to ourselves. While we were content with this, we were even more excited by the view from our hotel room.

George Washington…high up in the hills.

A daytime view of the side of George Washington's head in the Black Hills. This was our view from our hotel room.
A nighttime view of the side of George Washington's head in the Black Hills. This was our view from our hotel room.

Firehouse Brewery

In between the two monuments, we decided to check out the Firehouse Brewery. The billboards, accompanied with antique fire trucks, along the highway kept us entertained for hours. The one downside was that the wine wasn’t very good. I guess, being from New York, I’m a bit of a wine snob.

Girl drinking wine at the Firehouse Brewery

The Ruby House

The Ruby House, opened just a few days prior to our visit, had a 1900s’ saloon vibe with its red velvet curtains and its vintage mannequins. The restaurant had mixed reviews, but it was a part of the quaint village of Keystone and on our way to the hotel. It was easy access.

Old western The Black Hills town in Keystone, South Dakota.

It was not super busy as it was the beginning of the season. A bartender roamed table to table, taking drink orders. You paid him separately for any alcoholic beverages. Then you paid the waiter for the food. The food was average; the decorations dramatic.

dramatic, vintage, 1900s decor at the Ruby Horse. There are two mannequins on top of the bathroom entrance surrounded by furniture.

Leaving So Soon

There was so much more to do in Black Hills that time did not allow: Deadwood, Covered Wagon Rides, Dinosaur Parks, Custer State Park (where I hear Buffalo roam) and a slide that you can ride through the Black Hills.

South Dakota exceeded my expectations with its infinite prairies, its curving hills, and its majestic mountains hidden by sweeping forests. Plus, I have been rereading my childhood favorite books: Little House on the Prairie and want to visit De Smet, South Dakota where Laura Ingalls Wilder met Almanzo.

In other words, we will be back.

The crazy horse memorial and The Black Hills in the side view mirror as we drive away.

The next morning, we started our two-day journey back to New York.  Even with some challenging weather, every exploration, every adventure, every drive was memorable.

Long road trips will teach you a lot about endurance, patience and flexibility, but the nine-day adventure confirmed what I already knew: my husband and I are soul partners and soul travelers.

Not. One. Argument. (Unless you count the little quarrel while navigating our way through Chicago)

The Jesses Head West Tour taught us to enjoy moments together (singing Queen for a good two-hour stretch), be silly without caring who can see you (Milwaukee’s Safe House), pay attention to surroundings (trying to spot Buffalo) and take time to randomly stop along the way (encountering wild rams in the Badlands or touring the Corn Palace). The unexpected is what makes an adventure.

Stay tuned for the last part of our journey: Roadside Attractions.


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  1. Wow your article made me want to visit the Dakotas and I’ve never had the inclination to do so lol. It’s just not the sort of place you want to vacation at and you made it sound amazing!

  2. Jessica Kokoszki

    I couldn’t believe how amazing it was. Like you, I really had no interest, but it was one of the coolest places I’ve visited. I want to go back!

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