Rainy Rushmore!

Mt. Rushmore and surrounding region (if you don’t see a video window above,
please go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWp2Q05v77E)

Almost every time I saw pictures or movies of Mt. Rushmore in the past, its grand-scale patriotism instilled in me a desire to see it in person . . . so, even though it made for several long driving days during our recent road trip through the western United States, we looked forward to reaching this unique national memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

However, the huge thunderhead clouds, which I’ve been told can reach over 30,000 feet high, that we saw as we drove into Pueblo, Colorado, two days before should have given us a clue: It started to rain that night, and dampened our plans for the next several days.

Getting there: For example, it rained throughout our stop at the otherwise spectacular Garden of the Gods State Park in Colorado Springs, with clouds completely blocking the view of Pike’s Peak; and while the weather discouraged us from visiting nearby Manitou Cave — which was discovered by one of my paternal relatives, this Colorado state park still impressed us and is definitely worth a repeat visit.

While we were there a woman also told us she had just come from Rocky Mountain National Park, which we had included in our itinerary, where it was cold and snowing…and so we further adjusted our itinerary to include that in some future trip.

We drove to Denver through rain so heavy that, at one point, we could barely see the cars ahead of us on I-25; and while the rain let up a little, it never stopped that day. After getting lost a bunch of times in downtown Denver and its freeways, we finally drove on to Cheyenne, Wyoming, futilely hoping for a break in the weather.

The next morning we pushed on to Rushmore under a heavy overcast that soon turned into more rain — lots of it. That, plus the fact there were very few cars after we turned off on U.S. 85  — a lonely road that runs through miles and miles of high plains, through the previously unknown to us town of Lusk and even smaller rural farming and ranching communities. This led us to eventually merge with U.S. 18 to the previously unknown Pringle and finally on to our destination. By the way, one guy in Lusk told us it had been raining there for the past week without let-up, and he added they even had “the biggest hail storm” he had ever seen. Lucky us!

The only thing that broke the monotony of the drive for us was unexpectedly seeing the occasional pronghorn antelope calmly grazing or resting on the side of the highway, showing no concern for the weather and almost the same amount for the light traffic splashing by. That, plus trying to get ahead of the occasional RV or 18-wheeler we’d get behind — often for many miles before coming to the next passing lane. The back-spray, especially from the 18-wheelers, seemed particularly heavy and annoying…until, sometime after noon, we started running into long strings of U.S. Army vehicles traveling the region in convoys, usually lumbering along below the speed limit to make driving conditions even more irksome.

Despite the rain, I must say our appreciation for the drive picked up when we finally entered the Black Hills: The scenery there is spectacular. Also, miraculously, the rain stopped by the time we pulled into the small town of Custer, but — wait a minute — just kidding! By the time we came out of a convenience store it was raining again.

Two notes about the convenience store: They gave us a very good free map which was invaluable, because otherwise the region has lots of roads that can really confuse the average tourist; and almost all of the convenience stores we stopped at during our travels provide restrooms for customers.

Buffalo, Custer State ParkCuster State Park: Dashing for our car through the renewed rain , we felt a strong temptation to just drive on to our hotel in Rapid City and bag it for the rest of the day. But the allure of now-nearby Mt. Rushmore pulled us on. We decided to “chance-em,” as we say in Hawaii, and first drive through Custer State Park (they charge a $12 fee per car), hoping to see some of its herd of 1,500 buffalo and that the rain would stop by the time we came out and moved on to the memorial.

It didn’t, but I will say that even the rain didn’t diminish our appreciation for the winding Custer State Park perimeter “wildlife loop,” which gave us quite a few opportunities to see a lot of the buffalo, even a small herd of feral burros, and lots more pronghorns — all close enough to enjoy right out of the car windows. We didn’t even have to get wet.

The memorial: This buoyed our spirits so much that we decided to keep touring anyhow, taking the scenic and winding “Needles” road, across the Pigtail Bridges, and through a couple of self-supporting tunnels bored through solid granite rock…all to bring us to the entrance of Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. As we had in other national parks, we expected to use our “America the Beautiful” lifetime senior citizen Eagle Passes to get in free. Surprise! It turns out there is no charge to enter the memorial, BUT there is a $10 fee to park a car ($20 for an RV) in the covered parking garage. Go figure…

We also soon found that the wind blowing through the flag-draped concourse leading to the main Mt. Rushmore viewing platform really amplified the impact of the now-icy rain. We quickly purchased two plastic ponchos from the gift shop, and dashed up to the viewing platform, but there was no way anyone wanted to linger there that afternoon…let alone wait around for the patriotic sunset program. We were disappointed, but still, the granite-mountain sculptures of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt (Teddy) and Lincoln are very impressive, and I would definitely like to go back again some day.

Another note to first-time visitors to the area: Keystone is the closest lodging area to the memorial, but  we didn’t realize that when we booked our accommodations online; so, as the temperatures continued to drop and we admitted our Hawaii blood was just too thin to continue touring that day, we still had to drive about 30 more miles to Rapid City, thinking we would go back to Mt. Rushmore the next morning if the weather cleared.

Devil's TowerOn to Devil’s Tower: Unfortunately, the rain persisted the next morning, and after a woman at breakfast told us their experience the day before at nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park was muddy and miserable, we adjusted our itinerary once again, turning west and heading for Devil’s Tower National Monument. I had inexplicably wanted to see the 1,200-foot tower ever since watching Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a little like the character played by Richard Dreyfuss. Besides, as we drove west the rain stopped, the drive through the Black Hills was beautiful — including the 30-mile detour off the main highway to the monument, and the road even ran through the town of Sturgis, famous for its annual motorcycle rally in July.

We really enjoyed Devil’s Tower, where we smugly presented and they cheerfully accepted our lifetime passes. Besides the tower which loomed overhead, almost the first thing one sees just inside the entrance is a sizeable prairie dog colony where the hundreds and hundreds of the little rodents are just so cute. A short drive brought us to the visitors center parking lot near the base of the tower, which was filled with cars from all over the U.S. mainland and Canada, according to the wide range of license plates we saw, plus the usual assortment of motorcycles. A short uphill walk on a paved path T’s into another path a little over a mile long that circles the base of the tower. Two points I found interesting there: A sign asks visitors not to disturb the “prayer offerings” that some Native Americans tie into the low-hanging branches of the surrounding trees; and there were no rock climbers out — or I should say up — the day we were there, something about a moratorium in June.

But perhaps one of my most favorite parts of our visit to Devil’s Tower took place just outside the monument’s entrance, at the Longhorn Café which serves an absolutely delicious buffalo burger and perfect french fries. I think Richard Dreyfuss missed that part of the experience.

—Story, video and photos by Mike Foley (June 2010)


  1. Too bad Colorado Springs was so rainy. That’s my old stomping grounds. I’d hike Pike’s Peak pretty much ever summer, and we’d always go to Garden of the Gods for Labor Day breakfast as a family. Good times!

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