The original Black Hills getaway

March 16, 2011

By Shawn Werner

The Black Hills have enchanted people for thousands of years. A veritable oasis springing up from the vast expanse of the high plains, it's no wonder that many American Indians revere them as sacred. The rolling sea of ponderosa pine is speckled with trout-filled picturesque brooks, slumbering granite spires, and the occasional birch clearing. The region is inhabited by a wide variety of animals. Once home to grizzly bears, the Black Hills support established populations of mountain lions, deer, eagles, badgers, beavers and bison.

More than a dozen lakes, both naturally occurring and manmade, are stocked with trout, bass and walleye, and some are hailed as among the best fishing spots in the country. Upon viewing the Black Hills, noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright mused, "How is it that I've… heard so much about the Grand Canyon when this is even more miraculous?" Legend even has it that a visit to the region inspired Paul McCartney to pen the song "Rocky Raccoon."

It's no wonder then, that in 1925, when Gutzon Borglum had just begun construction on Mount Rushmore, not more than five miles to the west a mining engineer had started a project of his own. Wanting to develop a country club in the beauty of the Black Hills, he and four other investors purchased a tract of land alongside sleepy Palmer Creek at the base of Harney Peak. They constructed four private cabins for members and five cabins to rent. The club members enjoyed the fresh air and relative solitude until 1929. The effects of the Great Depression had reached the Black Hills and club members could no longer afford to operate their enterprise. The young country club was sold.

But under its new owner, the club saw significant expansion and development. Club goers soon had a plethora of activities to engage in: golfing the club's private course, horseback riding along winding mountain trails, picnicking with the family and touring the impressive granite outcroppings and lush valleys that make up the Black Hills forest. Business continued essentially uninterrupted for the next 33 years until the club was once again sold in 1962.

The new owners had a different vision than those before them, and converted the club into a working dude ranch that was christened Palmer Gulch Lodge. The golf course, left untended, reverted back into gentle sloping meadows. The focus of the new lodge was on trail riding and socializing underneath the evergreen blanket of towering ponderosa pines. Vacationers relaxed by touring the Black Hills on horseback, aided by several walking trails, all of which offered spectacular views. As the day wound down, visitors would gather around the bonfire for a chuckwagon-style supper, sharing stories and laughter.

Finally, in 1972 the property was sold again. The new owners transformed the dude ranch into a family-friendly campground, which opened to the public as a franchisee of Holiday Inn Travel Parks. Three years later, the business transferred to the familiar campground franchise KOA. Presently the campground and lodge is known as the Mount Rushmore KOA and the Lodge at Palmer Gulch.

During the journey from a modest nine-cabin country club to a luxury camping resort, the Palmer Gulch lodge has developed considerably. In addition to the original activities enjoyed by the historic dude larch patrons - such as trail riding and touring - there are now dozens of more modern pastimes available. Kids cool off on a Splash Pad, a sort of water playground, and play on an air-filled Jumping Pillow. The do-it-yourselfers work on catching dinner at the fishing pond. There are over 500 campsites for tents or RVs, and for those whose idea of roughing it means giving the maid a day off, there are six executive lodges complete with king size beds and full kitchens. Free Internet Wi-Fi capabilities are available across the entire campsite.

Close to both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorials, the Lodge at Palmer Gulch lies immersed in the heart of the Black Hills, making it a popular retreat among residents and visitors.

Last Modified: 06/25/2014 12:22:02 pm MDT