It began in May of 1947 at the invitation of Oglala Lakota Chief, Henry Standing Bear. Familiar with his previous work on the construction of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Chief Standing Bear asked sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to create a memorial for revered Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse.
“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also,” he is quoted.
Moved by the offering to help preserve the rich traditions and history of the country’s indigenous peoples, Korczak responded, “By carving Crazy Horse, if I can give back to the Indian some of his pride and create a means to keep alive his culture and heritage, my life will have been worthwhile.”
Korczak started plans for the Crazy Horse Memorial to be located in South Dakota’s sacred Black Hills, or Paha Sapa in the Lakota language. The first blast on the mountainside took place in June of 1948, roughly a year after Chief Standing Bear’s invitation.
That first blast began the world’s largest mountain carving in progress, which will be 641 feet long and 563 feet high upon completion. The horse’s head alone will be 219 feet tall. That’s taller than the Statue of Liberty from base to torch. Seventy years after that first blast, there is still a long way to go before the work is done, and not all descendants of Crazy Horse are in favor of completion. Some argue the sacred ground was not meant to be carved into images.
“They don’t respect our culture because we didn’t give permission for someone to carve the sacred Black Hills where our burial grounds are,” Elaine Quiver, a descendant of Crazy Horse, told Voice of America in 2003.
Korczak and his wife, Ruth, who was also instrumental in the development and continuation of the memorial, had 10 children together. Korczak passed away in 1982 and Ruth in 2014, but the memorial’s mission continues on through the family. Today, four of their children and several of their 23 grandchildren continue to work on the carving and overall vision for the site.
Origins of the Crazy Horse Volksmarch
According to the American Volkssport Association (AVA), “A volksmarch is a noncompetitive 3.1 mile (5 km) or 6.2 mile (10 km) walk. It’s not a pledge walk, it’s not a race, it is a fun activity you do with a club, with your family, with your pet, or all by yourself.”
These events originated in Europe in the 1960s and spread to the United States by the 1970s. By 1986, the volksmarch had made it to Crazy Horse.
“The event got started because a lot of people were interested in the mountain, and then we learned about [volksmarches] from an employee who was here at the time,” explains Viga Ziolkowski, daughter of Korczak and co-CEO of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation with her sister, Monique. “Everyone thought it was a good idea; it would help people understand the size of Crazy Horse and just how much it takes to build it. Up close they can see that.”
The Crazy Horse Volksmarch began with an annual two-day spring march. Since its start, the spring march has seen a total of 364,187 participants, with 8,095 attending this past June. Given the popularity of the Crazy Horse Volksmarch, the memorial’s leadership decided to make it a bi-annual event, adding an autumn march in 2012 to correspond with the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival. It would give visitors to the area a full weekend of Black Hills culture.
The Fall Crazy Horse Volksmarch is one of just three days each year during which people have the opportunity to walk up to the top of the mountain. On these days, admission to the memorial is waived for hikers who bring three cans of food to be donated to local food banks. This allows for greater accessibility to the memorial and more opportunity to share the mission of the foundation: “to protect and preserve the culture, tradition, and living heritage of the North American Indians.”
“I think it’s just a great time,” shares Viga. “It’s a lot of family fun. People meet there and have picnics together, walk to the mountain, and come back to see the museums. It’s a time when a lot of people have a lot of camaraderie.”
Viga remembers an elderly couple that traveled from Minnesota for the very first Crazy Horse Volksmarch. After that first year, she saw them return, again and again, for the event’s first 10 years until she heard the man had passed away. It was an event to which they had felt deeply connected.
“It’s something that people look forward to doing and plan their vacations around,” Viga notes.
Camping near Crazy Horse Volksmarch and Memorial
There are several camping options near Crazy Horse Memorial that allow visitors easy access to the site, local amenities, and all of the beauty the Black Hills have to offer.
Heritage Village Campground is located one mile south of the Crazy Horse Memorial entrance, and offers campers the perfect view of the carving in the distance. The campground has 26 tent-only sites and 44 RV sites with full hookups. It’s a great option for those who want to get an early start up the mountain.
For those who like to stay close to town, French Creek RV Camp is the place to be. This campground is located right across the street from the happening town of Custer and is in walking distance to some of the best restaurants in the Black Hills, including The Custer Wolf, Sage Creek Grille, and Skogen Kitchen. Despite being so close to town, the campground is sandwiched between two city parks, providing for peace and quiet, as well as easy access to hiking trails. It’s also a quick 10-minute drive up to the memorial.
Those less concerned with being close to the memorial, and want to escape a little deeper into nature will enjoy finding a campsite in the surrounding Black Hills National Forest or nearby Custer State Park.
Camping options within the forest include Grizzly Creek Primitive Campground near Mount Rushmore National Memorial or Comanche Park Campground on the way toward Jewel Cave National Monument, as well as dispersed camping. Custer State Park includes options perfect for campers who love to be close to the water, including Stockade Lake Campground or Sylvan Lake Campground. These sites may be preferred by campers planning to attend the park’s Buffalo Roundup that weekend, as well.
Tips for Attending the Crazy Horse Volksmarch
The 6th annual autumn Crazy Horse Volksmarch takes place on Sunday, September 30, 2018. The event is sponsored by the Black Hills Chapter of the AVA and is one of the most popular organized hikes in the United States.
About the Trail
- Location: Crazy Horse Memorial is located just off US-16/US-385 at 12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, SD.
- Length: The hike is 6.2 miles round-trip and does not have any shortcuts. Participants should plan for 2 to 4 hours to complete the route.
- Elevation: Peak elevation is around 6,500 feet. Hikers should pace themselves, especially if visiting from lower elevation areas.
- Terrain: The trail is rough with steep inclines. It is not suitable for strollers.
- Restrictions: Pets are not allowed on the trail.
Registration and Amenities
- Registration: Advanced registration is not required. Hikers can check-in day-of at the memorial beginning at 8am until 1pm. All hikers must be off the mountain by 4pm.
- Cost: Admission to the memorial is waived for all hikers who brings three cans of food for donation. The AVA requires a $3 hike fee per participant.
- Parking: Spots fill up fast and can be located a great distance from the starting point of the hike. Shuttle buses operate throughout the event to bring participants from the parking areas to the trailhead.
- Amenities: Food is available at the memorial’s Laughing Water Restaurant. Restrooms, educational resources, and gifts can all be found in the memorial’s museums.
What to Bring
- Comfortable, sturdy shoes
- Hiking poles, if desired
- Layers, as weather can change dramatically from the bottom to the top of the mountain
- Water and snacks