1. What attracted us to Custer, South Dakota, was Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The task of sculpting the faces of 4 US Presidents out of a granite mountain just seen so monumental; something we do not want to miss. We soon discovered that there were also other attractions around Custer that taken together would easily deserve more than the two days (20th and 21st May) we spent in the area. The whole area has clearly become a destination in its own right.
2. On the day we arrived, we managed to rush to the Jewel Cave, a short drive to the west of Custer, in time to join the 2.45 pm tour. First discovered around 1900, this 145 km of caves (reputedly the world's 2nd largest) are lined with jewel-like calcite crystals in various interesting shapes and forms. Amazingly beautiful. Unfortunately, my camera was not good enough to capture the details in the low light condition. Ably led by a young female warden, the scenic tour began with an elevator ride down 234 ft, then 1/4 mile of caves, up and down more than 700 steps, taking about 1.5 hour. It's well worth the visit.
3. Our plan next day was to first head for Needles Highway (Route 87) via Highway 89 from Custer, then south to Custer State Park (hopefully to see some animals), before looping northwards to Mt Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial via Iron Mountain Road.
4. The drive along the 14 miles Needles Highway (Route 87) was especially scenic. It was slow driving, with many twists and turns, through rugged granite formations that protruded up like needles, along narrow roads and passing a couple of tunnels where only one vehicle could pass at a time.
5. Heading south, we had a nice leisurely drive through the 71,000 acres of rolling hills, forests and plains of the Custer State Park. Looking out for animals was one of the highlights of a trip for visitors there. Well, we manage to see a few - bison, white tail deer, mountain goat and etc.
6. At its peak, there were some 40-50 mil bison that roamed the plain of north America. With the arrival of the Europeans in the 18/19th century, they were hunted to close to extinction. With introduction of a few bison early last century, there are now some 1500 bison in the park. For the first time I saw a live bison. One can grow to 6 ft tall and weigh 2000 lbs.
7. Mt Rushmore's 60 ft carvings of US Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln were sculpted by Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers between 1927 and 1941 to represent the first 150 years of American history. On the choice of the presidents, Borglum said, "the purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation and unification of the US with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt".
8. As a monumental project of the arts, this project was already worth a visit. What was also interesting was how a project originally conceived as a tourism project to uplift the economy of S Dakota had turned into an object of history lessons and the imparting of values for the young Americans. The guide we had very ably explained the choice of the presidents and what each meant to him.
Today, Mt Rushmore handles some 3 mil visitors a year, and tourism is the 2nd largest contributor to S Dakota's economy. One complication though - Mt Rushmore sits on land that's contested by the Indians.
9. The response to Mt Rushmore was the Crazy Horse Memorial, located a short distance away. Commissioned by Lakota Indian Chief, Henry Standing Bear, Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski was invited to undertake the world's largest mountain craving. Completely privately funded, he began work in 1948. Picture on the right shows the progress to date, with head of Crazy Horse completed. When completed it will show Crazy Horse on a horse with his hand stretched pointing to his land, standing more than 560 ft high. We hope it will be within our life time when we can come back and see the completed monument,
10. The next day (May 22), we drove south to Hot Springs to visit the Mammoth site. In 1974, in preparing the land for residential development, a mammoth tooth was discovered. Work was halted and excavation work led to discovery of bones belonging to 58 mammoths - 55 Columbian and 3 Wooly mammoths. It seemed 26 000 years ago the site was a sink hole which attracted animals seeking food and water and they must have fallen into the sink hole and were unable to get out. Apart from the bones, the Centre also had an good exhibition hall showing life during the mammoth era.
11. Here you see Weiping holding a femur of a mammoth. A replica of course.
12. After the Mammoth site, we headed west along Highway 18 towards Sheridan in Wyoming where we planned to do a night stop.