Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Crazy Horse Volksmarch - October 2016

Earlier this year, during the prime of family vacationing due to summer break from school, several people's photos of road trips to South Dakota and beyond crossed my Facebook feed.
Now, as you may well know, I'm no virgin to that area.
But what caught my eye in all those photos was a comment mentioning this:
Hm.  A 10K Volksmarch?  Granted I'm not a big hiker, but the chance to walk up onto a monument that will likely not be accessible at that point in another 5-10 years definitely got my attention.
Since I was on maternity leave at the time and had nothing else to keep my attention (hahaha, like that joke?), I did research the event a bit, but not much.  Overall I thought it sounded interesting enough, and looked to be free, so I showed it to my husband.
Of course, being that we could easily fly to Rapid City, he was down. 
And so it came to be!
About three months later, on a Friday afternoon, I found myself boarding Bubba for the longest flight I've taken in a small plane yet.  The flight out to Rapid City was estimated to be about 3:15 to 3:30.  Yikes!  That's a long time in a small plane for someone who's not exactly a calm flier.
Luckily, the air proved to be smooth and my little boy napped the vast majority of the flight, so that helped a lot. 
It also helped that we landed just as a rainbow was starting to form, and that the scenery was beautiful as well.  I mean ... it looked like a postcard out there!

I particularly liked that I could see a full rainbow just as the gas truck pulled up to refuel our plane.
Well, the rainbow ... and I liked the airport's call sign and souvenirs for sale as well.

KRAP really was the call sign for Rapid City.  No joke.  And I still wish I would have bought a coffee cup there.  Dang.

Anyway - after making our arrangements with the airport staff to store our plane for the weekend, and getting our rental car, we were finally off and running on our adventure ... which was, for the evening anyway, simply a short drive from the airport and a hotel check-in.

The next morning, Saturday, we spent the day being true tourists.  More on that in a future post.  For now I'll just say we maximized our car rental during our trip.  Proof positive: we put almost 500 miles on the car during our stay.


Fast forward - Sunday.  March day.

From what little I was able to read online about this event, I had basically knew two important things that I needed to adhere to day of:

(1) I absolutely had to get to the monument's welcome center & parking area when the doors opened - that meant 8am.
(2) I needed to be prepared to HIKE, not just walk around on a flat surface.

Since the day was relatively warm and clear skied, I opted to wear a supportive pair of tennis shoes, jeans, a basic cotton t-shirt and sunglasses.  My husband, as you can see below, chose more traditional hiking shoes, a hat and shorts ... but I suppose he could afford to dress a bit lighter since he had a little insulator on his back to keep him warm, haha.

Despite our early start, we ended up arriving to the monument's welcome center at about 8:15am.  Thankfully, we were still early enough to get prime parking.  That was a much welcome bonus with a baby on board.
Since my little boy is still not on solid foods, though that is coming soon, around 8:30am we wrapped up feeding and changing him in the car one last time and then loaded him into his hiking pack.  When all was said and done, maybe around 8:45 we walked up to the start point of the hike (pictured above).
Much to my surprise, as I had thought the hike was free, it turns out you had to pay $3 per person to join the march.  No big deal ... though I was a little annoyed they charged for my 5 month old son as well.  Whatever.  Not like it matters - clearly money was not an issue, since I did opt to upgrade one of our passes to the $15 fee so we could take home a medal as well. 
Speaking of, the medaling process was somewhat of an oddity to me.  Rather than giving you a coupon to redeem at the end of the march, as soon as you paid at the front door they handed you this:
Well then.  Seems like a bad omen to take a medal at the start of a hike.  AND I have to carry the medal with me on the entire hike?  OK, I guess!
After paying our entry fees and getting our check point cards (there were various check points throughout the march where we were to get our card "stamped"), we were off.  Into the woods we went.

The first mile or so was a fairly easy hike, but on a somewhat unlevel surface.  You definitely needed to be mindful of your step, and watch what the person ahead of you was doing (many unstable seniors and inattentive children were on the walk and it wasn't uncommon to see someone stumbling along the way). 
The path wasn't always well defined, either, so at times there were yellow ribbons in the trees or markers like this to guide our way:

The first checkpoint also offered a porta-potty (yes, ONE potty).  Since I sort of needed it, I did stand in line for a second ... and then realized the line was just too long and opted to wait for the next check point instead.
Though the hike through the woods was pretty and enjoyable, it was a little disheartening to realize that, upon hitting the second check point, we had essentially walked about a 2-3 mile loop in the forest and come almost back to our start point.  Honestly, I wouldn't have noticed this myself if it weren't for a Lakota man in front of me at the second porta-potty line.  At least he had a good sense of humor about it when he pointed it out to those of us in line.  And I do have to admit ... it was kind of funny.
The good news was, despite the gratuitous hike we just completed, after clearing that second porta-potty line we were on to the meat of the adventure - starting our climb up to the Crazy Horse monument.

The trail at this point opened up to a nice, wide, gravel road.  It was a bit of a slow killer, since it was a constant incline, but the road offered stunning views all around the front and side of the monument as you went.

The gravel road, though well groomed, was long and meandering.  At times it felt like it would never end.  But finally, after the last steep climb you see in the photo above, we were there.  At the top! 

Of course I had to take a quick selfie under the nose to prove I was there.  I know it's a little vain, but at least I didn't try to "pick his nose".  And please - if you go there yourself - DON'T DO THAT!  This is a memorial to the native people's struggle in the United States.  Posing as if you're picking his nose is tremendously disrespectful.
Once at the top, it was impossible not to be in awe of the view.  I tried to take a couple of panoramas to capture it, but still this does the view no justice.  (The first of the below is off the back side of the monument, the second is a view off of Crazy Horse's pointed finger).

Also, not to lose sight of how high above the ground we were, I took a picture off the front edge of the monument.  If you look closely in this photo you can see the welcome center and parking lot in the upper left corner. 

Eventually, though I could have stayed up there an enjoyed the view for hours, it was time for us to move on.  *Sigh*
Descending, the trail directed us towards the back side of Crazy Horse, or the "arm pit" if you will.  At that location, there were some people from the build team talking to hikers about the monument.  I didn't stop to chat, but I did walk up to the opening ... just because I could.  I was curious immediately when I saw red spray paint circles and what looked to be metal tie rods scattered on the "ceiling" of the opening - see the 2nd photo below.

After that last view, that was pretty much it for the hike.  The rest of the walk dumped you back onto the gravel road that lead directly back to the visitor's center.  Just before the building came in to view, though, there was one last sign:
And that was it!  In about 2 hours time, including various porta-potty breaks and a long pause at the top, our hike was done.  Thirsty and hungry for lunch, we tried to eat at the restaurant in the visitor's center.  Obviously, that was a huge mistake - having waited for the hostess to seat us for over 10 minutes, with ample tables open, we finally decided to bag it and eat elsewhere.  (There's something to be desired when it comes to service in South Dakota - must be the small town atmosphere, they are SO SLOW).
Before we left, I snapped a quick picture of our check point cards and then threw them into the trash.  I'm not into hoarding every little paper scrap as a souvenir, as you can tell. 
A word on the check point "stamping".  You'll notice in the photo above that they marked each check point on our card with a letter, eventually spelling out the word VIGA.  One of the girls at the later check points informed a hiker, who had inquired about the word, that it was "the name of one of his daughters".  Cool, I thought, they're honoring Crazy Horse's kids.
**Buzz**  Wrong.
Without getting too political about this monument and the family who's building it (because I see the good of wanting to honor the Natives of this country despite the fact that it's taken the Ziolkowski family over 65 years so far to build the damn thing, while their family is estimated to net a combined salary of almost $450,000 a year to do so), I was highly disappointed to learn that Viga is the name of one of Ziolkowski's extended family (hence the comment about being a daughter). 
Really?  They couldn't have found anything related to Native culture?  This reeks of narcissism to me.  Especially when you factor in the back of the finisher's medal from the hike.

But I guess when you consider all the attention the Borglums get for doing Rushmore ... ?  I don't know, maybe it's justified.  It just feels self serving to me.

Regardless, overall the event was a good time and I'm glad we did it - all THREE of us!


A few closing notes:

- Obviously this hike is doable for entry level hikers and for people carrying a pack (with or without a baby in it, *ahem*).  As I mentioned above, I saw hikers of all levels partaking in the event ... and a few more aggressive people doing trail running, too. 

- Aside from a handful of steep steps down, the overall hike is fairly easy to navigate.  There is a significant climb to get to the top, however, so don't expect to just cruise through the trail.  At a fair but not overly aggressive clip, you should be able to finish in around 2 hours.

- Do come prepared.  Dress in layers appropriate for your current weather conditions.  Wear supportive shoes.  If you struggle with stability at all, consider a hiking staff of some sort (I actually kind of wished I would have brought one since my husband wasn't able to help me on a couple of steep spots being that he had the baby).

- There are water and bathroom stops, some of which also sell snacks.  Don't rely on these to be your sole source of water or bathroom facilities, though.  Meaning: don't be dumb like me, go before you start, and have water in your car for when you finish.

- Carry cash when you hike, single bills if possible.  The rest stops are staffed by volunteers who are fund raising for their various groups (IE churches, sports teams, etc).  I wish I would have had some cash to chip into their tills.

- Take your time.  Enjoy the hike.  Take in the views.  AND: engage with the people around you if you can.  (I was especially surprised by the number of Native Peoples who participated.  Many of them had interesting things to talk about as they walked - I didn't talk to many people but enjoyed listening to a lot of conversations as we went).


  1. What an amazing and incredibly unique experience!!! Your pictures are stunning. Look at that sapphire blue sky. I think it's weird to get the medal at the start, too, but what the heck. It's very cool that you got to mingle with so many Native Peoples - their stories must have been fascinating!

    1. It really was the perfect trip - weather and all! You should do it next year. :-)