South Dakota: Deadwood, Mount Rushmore and More

Posted on July 19, 2009 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Old West Road Trip

*Saturday, May 23, 2009
Rapid City to Deadwood and Mount Rushmore*


On Saturday we took a long driving tour of Black Hills National Park and Mount Rushmore, ending back in Rapid City for another night. It was definitely the best part of South Dakota and we saw lots of interesting sights.

The first sight was an unexpected one - a Norwegian stave church! I've learned about these churches in doing research for my website and they are so beautiful and interesting. The "stave" refers to the upright wooden posts that form the frame of the church. They are entirely made of wood, have Viking-style carvings and, strangely, look a lot like Zen temples! Most of them date from around the 12th century.

I never thought I'd get to see one of these in South Dakota! We saw the sign on our way out of Rapid City and drove through a suburban neighborhood to get there. Called the Chapel in the Hills, it was built in 1969 by local benefactor of Norwegian descent and there are services every evening in the summer.

Of course it's not as good as the real thing, but the replica is very well done and in a nice wooded setting. When you walk in the church, an audio tour begins on the loudspeaker.

Wooded Setting

Side View

Back View
Chapel in the Hills Chapel in the Hills Chapel in the Hills

And not too much further down the road, we turned off for another interesting sign - Thunderhead Underground Falls, located inside a 19th-century gold mine shaft. It was so fun. The surrounding forest was beautiful and it we had such a good time walking all the way to the back of the tunnel to see the falls.

Thunderhead Falls Some above-ground falls just outside the tunnel

Chipmunk Little chipmunk on a tree

Thunderhead Underground Falls The gold mine shaft

Thunderhead Underground Falls Sign telling us where to look for gold

Thunderhead Underground Falls The underground falls at the end of the tunnel

Thunderhead Underground Falls View back to the entrance

IMG_3590 The weather began to clear up after this and our drive through the Black Hills National Forest was very peaceful and scenic.

Black Hills National Forest The landscape reminded me a lot of Central Oregon.

IMG_3602 Our third stop was planned, but wasn't a traditional sight - David wanted to do some target shooting in the National Forest (where it's legal), and we found a great spot off a side road to do so. Although I'm not as nearly enthusiastic as David, I grew up doing a lot of target shooting so it was fun for me too. And it was a nice excuse to hang out in nature for a half-hour.

IMG_3608 We really showed those granola bars who's boss.

Back on the road, I read about a little town called Rochford (pop. 25) in my guidebook, and persuaded David to take a slightly longer route to Deadwood in order to go through it. It was worth the stop. Not much to see, but very cute and amusing. It's quite close to Sturgis, famous for its annual motorcycle rally, and we saw lots of bikers.

Rochford Norwegian X-ing Rochford University of Rochford, Norsk Annex The University of Rochford, Norsk Annex.

University of Rochford, Norsk Annex University entrance.

Rochford Mall Rochford Mall

Rochford Mall The "Small of America"

Rochford Mall Inside Rochford Mall

Rochford Mall Employee in the "Grocery Department"

Rochford City Library Rochford City Library

We had intended to have lunch in Deadwood, but by now it was almost 2:00 and we were starving. So we headed into the Moonshine Gulch Saloon for a couple burgers, which were remarkably good. The interior decoration was a fine example of elegance and minimalism.

IMG_3661 Moonshine Gulch Saloon Moonshine Gulch Saloon Minimalist Decoration Ceiling above our table

Bathroom Philosophy Bathroom wisdom


Deadwood After our leisurely drive north through the Black Hills National Forest, we arrived at Deadwood in the mid-afternoon.

Deadwood Because I'm lazy, I'll let the Encyclopedia Britannica tell you about the town:

"Deadwood lies in a canyon formed by Whitewood Creek in the northern Black Hills, more than 4,530 feet (1,380 metres) above sea level. Built at the base of the steep wooded inclines of Deadwood Gulch and extending up the hillsides, it was named for the dead trees found in the canyon.

The city was founded during the 1876 gold rush, when about 25,000 miners swarmed the surrounding hills. Its turbulent reputation as a lawless outpost of frontier violence was magnified by the Deadwood Dick series of dime novels. Wild Bill Hickok, soldier, scout, and marshal, was killed in a Deadwood saloon on August 2, 1876, by Jack McCall. Hickok is buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery, near Calamity Jane, Preacher Smith, Seth Bullock, and other celebrated frontier characters who died in the vicinity; the reenactment of Hickok’s killing and the capture and trial of McCall is a popular tourist spectacle.

A railroad link was completed in 1891, and Deadwood became a regional trading centre. Gambling was central to Deadwood’s history, but it was prohibited in 1905; gaming in Deadwood was again legalized, through a state referendum, in 1989.

The economy is driven largely by tourism, based primarily on dozens of gaming halls. The city itself is a national historic landmark. Pop. (2000) 1,380."

Deadwood was interesting, and it was fun to see the assassination site of Wild Bill, but I wouldn't say it's worth going too far out of your way for.

Deadwood Demise of Wild Bill

Deadwood Demise of Wild Bill's assassin, about a block down the street

Deadwood Old West card player

Deadwood Adams Museum from rail station

Deadwood Main street, with tour bus

Deadwood One of many gambling halls

Approaching Mount Rushmore Then back on the road again, to drive all the way back down to the south end of the Black Hills to visit Mount Rushmore, which is very close to our base in Rapid City.

IMG_3796 The pretty Pactola Reservoir is along the way.

IMG_7295dp Also along the way: some bighorn sheep (or similar) clearly not too bothered by humans. David pulled over and walked back for some photos.

IMG_3801 IMG_7310dpp IMG_7296dpp Approaching Mount Rushmore As we approached Mount Rushmore, the landscape was beautiful and so was the evening light. Neither of us was super thrilled about the monument itself, but hoped we might have an opportunity for some pretty pictures.

Approaching Mount Rushmore Only two miles to go and still beautiful out - will the sun stay out from behind the clouds?

Mount Rushmore No, it won't. And it never came back. Not only that, but the sun was behind the monument by this time of day, which is bad.

But we actually enjoyed seeing the famous sight more than we expected, despite all the ridiculous tourist trappings and ugly concrete platform that leads up to it. And I was able to brighten up the photos a bit in Photoshop, which I'm gradually figuring out how to use.

Mount Rushmore Leading up to the monument is an avenue with the states' flags and accompanying inscriptions.

IMG_3832p Here's ours.

Mount Rushmore Mount Rushmore Mount Rushmore Mount Rushmore

The portraits are pretty amazing pieces of sculpture, actually. There's not a lot of room for mistakes when you're carving out of a big rock, and it must have been hard for the sculptor to get any kind of perspective on something so big.

To properly conclude our day of American traditions, we stopped for dinner at a Pizza Hut in Rapid City. Seated nearby were a pair of college-age girls who were doing the same road trip as us, going in the other direction towards Chicago.

Next up: Wyoming! It's a beautiful state and was the highlight of our trip.