Let the West win you over

PUBLISHED: 13:14 24 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:04 20 February 2013

Let the West win you over

Let the West win you over

Frank Corless strikes holiday gold in the Black Hills of Dakota

Frank Corless strikes holiday gold in the Black Hills of Dakota

THE gold rush days have long gone in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, but you can still strike a holiday mother lode.

Even if you resort to tossing a coin to choose places to see, its a case of heads-you-win, tails-you-win. You cant go wrong. So lets start with the heads...60ft high ones that pay tribute to former US presidents, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt.

Their faces have stared out of a granite mountainside for 70 years since 400 workers finally finished the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Movie buffs will best remember the location from the final scenes in Alfred Hitchcocks thriller, North by Northwest, as Cary Grant, and his co-star Eva Marie Saint, are saved from death after villains chase them across the top of the presidents heads.

It was pure Hollywood hokum. But theres nothing phoney about the sculpture, and I have to admit I was awe struck as I stood in its huge shadow. I wasnt alone. Apart from the clicking of cameras, Ive never known such big crowds to fall so silent, so quickly.

But Rushmore isnt the end of the spectacular head count. Roughly 17 miles away, work on a similar tribute, this time to Lakota Sioux chief Crazy Horse, has been going on since 1948.

The warriors 87ft high head is finished, and its an impressive sight, yet the whole job is still nowhere near completion.

Ziolkowskis indomitable widow Ruth helped by most of her ten children has vowed to finish the work.

When that eventually happens (dont hold your breath), Crazy Horse will be seen in all his glory, sitting astride his horse, and pointing one arm into the distance.

The sculpture will be so enormous longer than a cruise ship and taller than a 60 storey skyscraper that it will dwarf the Mount Rushmore heads.

Now for the TAILS, all 1,500 of them, give or take a few. They belong to the magnificent herd of bison that share top billing with cowboys and cowgirls at South Dakotas annual buffalo round-up in Custer State Park.

My seeing the event was meant as a holiday grand finale, and I thought I was only there for the ride, so to speak.

But, after opting for a good spec, I found I was going to be as close to the action as I could be without feeling bison breath on my neck. I was positioned in the back of a pickup truck, one of many escorting a 60-strong team of highly skilled riders tasked with the job of driving the herd into corrals for annual health checks, vaccinations, and branding..

As the beasts grazed in peaceful grasslands, it didnt look as though they fancied the prospect. Maybe, they needed a little persuasion.

Cue the crack of whips and a chorus of riders shouts. In moments, what had been an oasis of calm turned into a dust-filled cauldron, echoing to the thunder of hooves.

Clinging to steel support bars, I only just managed to stay upright as our driver did his best to keep pace with the riders and the stampeding buffalo.

Almost in touching distance of both, we plunged down grassy slopes, ducked under trees, splashed through creeks, and dodged rocky outcrops

At one stage, I was lifted off my feet and hurled to one side, yet just managed to hang on. By then, the adrenalin was flowing, and the apprehension I had felt at the start, had vanished.

I was so hyped, I wouldnt have minded if the round-up had lasted for hours but, sadly, it seemed to dawdle, and then to stop, just as quickly as it had begun, with every last buffalo safely corralled.

The great thing about the Black Hills is that, even though they cover a massive area, they generate a feeling of being snug and compact.

Places you really want to see are not too much hassle to reach. And its a huge goody bag, ranging from craggy peaks and prairies, to ponderosa pine forests and shimmering lakes. One of them, Sylvan Lake, where granite rock formations cast long shadows on the water, was an extra-special gem.

In just nine days, I rode an old Wild West steam train, walked 300 steps down into Wind Cave, toured the fabulous Black Hills wild horse sanctuary, and enjoyed every mile of the scenic Needles Highway. Not all at once, of course.

In between, I got to see cute, little towns like Hot Springs, and Hill City, and tucked into some fantastic food, including the most delicious steak Ive ever tasted. Well, what would you expect in America!

But, you dont have to be so frenetic. Pick your own pace to enjoy the very best of a West where its easy to run out of superlatives to describe the assortment of wildlife, and the wonderfully scenic places they inhabit.

The best of them is among the towering cliffs, waterfalls, and lush vegetation of Spearfish Canyon, an inspired choice for the final scenes in Kevin Costners Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves.

The Mars-like terrain of Badlands National Park, once the floor of an ancient ocean, was a stark and spookily eerie contrast. At dawn, the parks jagged peak and rock spires glimmered in the early light. Getting up early to view it had never been so rewarding.

Native Americans have long regarded the Black Hills as sacred land, but it counted for nothing after gold was found in the 1870s.

Legendary Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane were among thousands who trampled across the prairies, most of them making tracks for rootin, tootin Deadwood, in the hope of getting rich. It was a frenetic era that changed lives and history and, ultimately, led to tragedy at Wounded Knee where the US Cavalry massacred almost 300 Indian men, women and children.

From being a boom town, Deadwood eventually hit bad times. Yet, in a strange twist of fate, its future was secured after legalised gambling got the go-ahead in 1989.

Tourists now pour in to savour the towns amazing history and scenery, and to get the chance of hitting the jackpot in the many gaming saloons.

Didnt I tell you? Youre on to a winner in them, thar hills...


For an official RMI Real America Guide and further information on travelling to South Dakota please contact: Martin Roberts, Rocky Mountain International, 1G The Chandlery London SE1 7QY Tel: +44 (0)20-7953-8790 martin@rmi-realamerica.co.uk

Websites: www.rmi-realamerica.com www.travelsd.com

United Airlines Fly from Heathrow to Rapid City via Chicago or Denver www.unitedairlines.co.uk

America As You Like It offers a 7 night fly-drive to South Dakota including flights, car hire and accommodation from 860 per person, based on two people sharing. Tel: 020 8742 8299 or www.americaasyoulikeit.com

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