“Only scars carved into stone on the face of earth” *
The weather has brightened up, with some sunshine through broken cloud as I eat breakfast in the hotel. There’s a lack of fresh fruit here, but the cereal and pastries are OK. I’m checked out and driving away at 10.05 am, and soon heading along Hwy 244 to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. I caught my first glimpse of it yesterday. Peter Norbreck designed his scenic byway route on Iron Mountain to deliberately frame the sculpture when you drive through the tunnels on the road (I think two of them). And it worked, because I emerged and saw four Presidents in the distance.
It’s about a 5 minute drive from the hotel to the National Memorial. It is $10 to get in and in the entrance area I pick-up a $6 self-guided audio tour. This was very helpful in understanding some of the background. And very good value too. In the Visitor Center there’s a short film and museum, both of which were very good at explaining the background to the project and how they built it.
The latter aspect is quite astonishing when I learn the details. It was created between 1927 and 1941 in an age when they essentially had almost no ‘technology’ as such to carry out such a massive undertaking. And amazingly, considering men were hanging off ropes suspended 100s of feet in the air, no-one died during construction.
As for the surroundings around the monument, it’s well laid out although part of the circular trail was closed. A ranger also told me they are closing the museum next year (2019) for renovations, probably for over a year. Now that would be a proper downer if you turned up and couldn’t see that. I think it’s critical in understanding the project’s history and development.
The monument itself is astonishing. We’ve all seen the picture I guess but ‘up close’ – a relative term considering you’re at the bottom of the mountain it’s built into – the detail is amazing. It’s also very clean and the faces are almost life-like. George Washington dominates of all four Presidents I think. As you move around the site the perspective you get alters all the time obviously, giving different views of each President.
I was most impressed. It really is one of the wonders of the modern world. I’m sure it means a lot more to Americans than me. But even to me it stands out as a piece of art, an outstanding sculpture. It’s remarkable and incredible on that basis alone.
Back On The Scenic Byway
I spend nearly two hours there, which ties in with what I read pre-trip as to how long it would take to see everything. Back on Hwy 244 W, the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, I stop at a turnout. There’s an information board, which tells me to look up. To see Washington’s profile on Mt Rushmore beaming into the beyond!
Carrying on, it’s a great drive. I pass Horsethief Lake and more lovely scenery, on a good road, swift but twists and turns as well. And being in the Black Hills there are ups and downs along the way. A left turn takes me onto Hwy 385/16 briefly, swiftly followed by another left onto Hwy 87. Now this is a serious road. Narrow, climbing high, spectacular views of the ponderosa pine covered hillsides of the Black Hills National Forest. I go through the single lane Hood Tunnel, carved through the rock. Then by Sylvan Lake Hwy 87 takes a left, whilst the road straight on becomes Hwy 89. Left it is, onto the Needles Highway.
I have learnt over the years that when a US road sign says 20, 15 or 10 mph and there’s turn sign, that they mean it. Ignore them at your peril. When a higher speed is recommended you can generally go faster, for instance many 45 mph bends can be taken at 55 mph. But when the sign says ‘slow’, you go slow. I discover there are lots of such signs ahead.
The Needles Highway has plenty of low speeds bends, switchbacks and other very tight turns. It’s great to drive, with attention. It is the rock formations that astound however. If you ever drive it, or view my photos, you’ll understand why it’s called the Needles Highway. Just incredible. And do get to see the Needles Eye before nature takes it away through erosion.
Driving along I think that as I see more and more of the world, and the amazing sights it has to offer, that a day like today could just blur into a “yeah, seen something like this before… bored.” In this phase of my life, my Pacific Coast Highway trip formed my current view of “that’s beautiful”, and I’ll never forget it. The Needles Highway is different but no less beautiful in its own way. If I hadn’t done the PCH then Needles Highway might be my ‘best ever’ drive. But it’s a close thing.
What also makes it stunning, which was true on Iron Mountain yesterday as well, is that Fall is coming. All the tree leaves are turning colours at varying rates and the vast smorgasbord of different shades and colours are amazing to see: yellow, red, orange… all mixed in against a backdrop of the brown evergreen Ponderosa pines.
This aspect of the Black Hills is brilliant. I have never seen anything like the variety, range and mixture of colours in a landscape before. To me, it’s unique. I stop at the Needles Scenic Overlook to have a lunch of a turkey and cheese sandwich, bought at a gas station earlier. With a view like today’s, there’s not a lot to complain about.
I move on, to witness more stunning vistas, driving on wickedly twisting roads at 10 mph. The Needles Eye Tunnel just before the Scenic Overlook was the summit so now I’m gently going downhill. It’s a superb drive, to be taken slowly, and not rushed at all. The descent is gradual and the scenery continues to stun. Brilliant drive overall.
To Rapid City
Eventually though the road does flatten out and I soon reach the junction with Hwy 16A. A left turn, now driving east, and a few miles on there is a junction with Hwy 36. Taking that road brings me to Hwy 79, where another left turn sees me heading north towards Rapid City.
On the outskirts of the city is the car wash I scoped out yesterday. I pull into Super Clean Tunnel Wash and ask the owner for the best option to clean under the car as well as the bodywork. Deal agreed, they get to work. On coming out of the tunnel, on inspection they did not too bad a job but I can still see bits of mud and grass underneath. I try and clear it, getting most, but not all, of it. I’ve run out of paper towels though so will have to deal with it later.
10 minutes up the road I get to The Rushmore Hotel and Suites at 4.20 pm. It’s cold here, only 40º F and the skies that started out bright and blue this morning have gradually clouded over. After checking in I venture back out onto Main St to have a look at the various bars I’d researched for dinner. I decide on the Firehouse Brewing Company over a couple of sports bars, whose menus weren’t very appetising. Even though unexpectedly I have fridge in my room, I can’t find a convenience store nearby, so I decide to pay $12 for a hotel breakfast tomorrow. The hotel room is a very modern and quirky design, and very large, but with almost no clothes storage. Weird.
At The Firehouse For Dinner
Later on I go back down Main St to the Firehouse. It is an old fire station with its own microbrewery. It’s very busy at 8 pm but I get a seat at the bar. I try some of the local beers and order some ribs, which are good: lots of meat, nice sauce and good fries. With couples either side of me there’s no chat so I watch college football on TV. Later a couple of guys each on their own arrive but as usual these days they are more interested in their phones than talking. I do later exchange a couple words about the football but nothing develops.
So I go back to the hotel to write up some diary. On the way back up Main St some guy in a Seahawks jersey is getting arrested for DUI, by the look of it. I stop to watch what the cop is doing whereupon some black guy crosses the street and shouts at me – “What you lookin’ at?” This sounds a bit ominous so I quickly move on.
It’s been a great day on the road seeing “stuff”, and with reasonable weather for the most part. The weather has been a real thorn in the side so far, rarely has blue sky been seen, or has the temperature been good. I knew I was driving further north than I’d ever done before, so expected it to be cooler. But from overheard snippets in bars, it does seem as if it’s really unseasonable bad weather over the past two weeks. Just my luck!
* One Tree Hill by U2