A Brief Introduction

If an image is unattributed on this website (such as the one above), it was taken by John and you have his permission to use it for non-commercial purposes.

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In South Dakota, that half of the state which lies left of the Missouri River is known as West River. Its astounding how different the two halves are. The eastern portion is flat and fertile farmland, while the west is rugged ranches, rivers, rocks and ancient worn-down mountains the Black Hills. (Above, the author's lens captured some pronghorn antelope passing through beef country near Belle Fourche.)

The river is where the Old West began. In 1776, the year of American independence, the Lakota conquered the Cheyenne here. They had gradually been moving west from Minnesota, and wild horses on the plains eventually transformed the way they lived. From woodland hunters they became dependent on bison for food, shelter, clothing and a host of personal items. The center of the Lakota world became He Spa, the Black Hills (MoHhta-vohonaeva in Cheyenne). Europeans followed the same migration pattern, relentlessly moving west in search of fertile land and the allure of gold. They soon discovered that the Lakotas Achilles heel was bison. Wipe out the animals and you can destroy the culture. They were quite efficient, but thankfully much survived. Today, the Lakota and some friends are doing a superb job of preserving the past.

About halfway between the river and the Wyoming border, just below the North Dakota line, is the modern town of Lemmon. Ten minutes south of downtown is the Grand River National Grassland, which surrounds Shadehill Reservoir. In 1823 a trapper named Hugh Glass was abandoned without supplies or weapons here, and left for dead by his companions after being attacked by a grizzly. He set his own broken leg and spent the next six weeks crawling and stumbling across the plains back to the river. He eventually reached the safety of Fort Kiowa (present day Chamberlain, SD). His story was told in the 2015 movie The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who won an Oscar for his portrayal.

That wasnt the only movie that attempted to portray West River life in the nineteenth century. Halfway up Spearfish Canyon, in the heart of the northern Black Hills, is the village of Savoy. Take the gravel road to the right of the hotel and drive a few minutes past Roughlock Falls: youll then be where the winter scenes in Kevin Costners epic Dances With Wolves were shot.

John Lopez is from Lemmon. An amazing artist whose work is celebrated around the globe, he is first and foremost a horseman. He breeds and gentles colts, and somewhere along the way he began to transform that love into another: sculpture. John does something spectacular with the remnants of West River civilization. In his own words, he chooses among the elements of the pastthe actual implements that plowed the soil or cut the grain or dug the dinosaurand creates the curve of a jaw, the twitch of a tail, the power of a shoulder. His creations are simply jaw dropping: you can see several around the Black Hills. For example, his horse called Iron Star is on the Main Street in Hill City. His Sand Hill Crane is at the Rapid City airport, and Dakotah, a magnificent bison bull, is at the Dakota Steak House at 1325 North Elk Vale Road in Rapid City. Below is "Friesian". Click on the image to learn more, and if you'd like to order his book, click here.

Photo courtesy John Lopez Studio

The Black Hills are blessed with breathtaking natural scenery, and a lot of manmade attractions. Even a vacation needs a little organizing, and by dividing the Hills into zones, we realized that our visitors can organize their days geographically, and avoid a lot of backtracking. We want you to be able to make well-informed choices, so our intention is not to review everything for you, but rather to let you see everything thats available, and then add a few helpful notes (such as directions, accessibility, etc.). Weve provided links for just about everything, and strongly suggest beginning your trip with a visit to the Black Hills National Forest website. Its your forest, and the incredible folks who care for it have provided an invaluable resource for finding everything from hiking trails to campsites in the BHNF. There is no entrance fee: the Forest is open year-round for a variety of recreational activities and uses. However, there are fees at most campgrounds and some day use areas. We'd like to suggest that you include some quiet time enjoying the forests, canyons, lakes and streams in between visiting the major attractions. Those small charms (most of which cost nothing) can make the difference between a frantic push to get everything done, and an intimate experience that will invite you to return again and again to these ancient Hills.

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