Unusual Thrills at the Black Hills

By Kathleen Somers

What a great idea! Carve the facial likeness of four U. S. Presidents into a granite mountain and then invite vacationers from all over the world to come marvel. In fact, the idea was so successful, that the Mount Rushmore sculpture has become an instantly recognizable icon symbolizing America. It attracts approximately two million visitors each year. They come by the busload. This year, there is an added reason to bring your group, as Mount Rushmore celebrates its 70th anniversary.

When Doane Robinson, a South Dakota historian conceived the idea of Presidential faces in granite, and invited Gutzon Borglun to the Black Hills region of SD to begin the massive carving, he was thinking big. But he may not have imagined the big busses that would someday be wheeling their way towards his massive monument. Big busses, big attraction, and big fun can add up to big success for you. Here are some inside tips that will make the experience an even better one.

The Black Hills offers the highest concentration of public parks, monuments and memorials in the world. The grandeur of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the mysterious rock of Badlands National Park, the buffalo herds of Custer State Park, the blasts at Crazy Horse Memorial and two of the longest caves in the world, plus some of the most beautiful scenic drives to be found, all deserve your attention. As Michelle Thomson, Tourism Director in Rapid City, South Dakota reminds us, these things are a huge draw to visitors. It’s central location to all Black Hills attractions makes Rapid City the perfect hub for your tour. Choose from a wide selection of group friendly hotels, great eateries, and various shopping and entertainment options. How would you like to have your picture taken with President John F. Kennedy? Well bring your camera, because the street corners of downtown Rapid City are dotted with life-sized bronze statues depicting many of our nation’s Presidents. Another surprise is coming Fall of 2011 when the new Main Street Square is scheduled to open. This pedestrian friendly area will offer art exhibits, lunchtime concert series, a Farmer’s Market, waterfall, fountain, shopping, entertainment and other events. It is expected to be quite a draw to the downtown area, one you will surely want to offer your group.

Group Tour Bus traveling through Mountainous roads in the Black HillsTwo of the most scenic routes in the Black Hills are nearly impossible for today’s large motorcoaches. A mountainous, curving, road known as Needles Highway, named after the high granite “needles” the route winds among, offers fantastic views. This narrow roadway passes through two low tunnels of sheer granite. Considered part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, the 14-mile stretch of road is as treacherous as it is scenic. Another section of the Byway, named Iron Mountain Road, twists and climbs past Mount Rushmore and into Custer State Park. Known for its three pigtail bridges and single-lane-tunnels cut through granite to frame Mount Rushmore, this very scenic route abounds with mountain goats, bison, and other wildlife.

You’ll be happy to know your group does not have to miss this very exciting part of the Black Hills experience. Local tour companies offer options priced for a variety of budgets. From 12 passenger vans to an entire full day packaged tour, local tour companies know the colorful history of the area, as well as how to best showcase all the Black Hills has to offer. Darla Bass of Group Getaways in Tonganoxie, KS, has been bringing groups to the area for many years. She loves the added value a Rapid City tour service brings through their step on guides. Her tips? Begin with a call to the CVB. Twelve-passenger vans can be difficult for seniors when they have to stoop to access the back of the van. Splitting the group is not always optimal either. Flexibility is lost as your group will be required to stick to another’s itinerary. Still, the benefits far outweigh any downside.

Your group will be treated to stories and local color that elevate the experience to something better than fun and far past memorable. One Stagecoach West driver pretended to get his coach stuck in the narrow tunnel, creating all kinds of fun for the passengers.  Bass said of her group “They still talk about it today. It was the most fun of the entire day.”

Herman Jones of Stagecoach West, also known as Mount Rushmore Tours, prides himself in hiring knowledgeable guides. He goes the extra mile in all he does. “Give them everything you promised and then something extra” he says. Stagecoach offers multiple levels of service, from experienced step on guides trained to give a good feel for the Byways, while keeping your motorcoach out of the tunnels, to a full day package tour, perfect when you need to give your driver a day off. Begin at Fort Hays with the 99¢ all-you-can-eat breakfast, and return after a full day of touring for the “Dances With Wolves” Film set and Chuckwagon Supper. Extras include free Model T Ford rides, and hands-on fun at the turn of the century complete town square.

Clearly touring by motorcoach is more fun, and most relaxing.

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