It’s not every day that you get to walk on the 263-foot outstretched arm of a legendary Lakota leader and gaze at his 87-foot face.
Seeing the Crazy Horse Memorial up close — and getting a view of the Black Hills that few people get to see — is a big part of the appeal of the annual Crazy Horse Volksmarch, set for this weekend.
“I think that’s the breathtaking adventure of it,” said Chip Elverud, a member of the Black Hills Chapter of the American Volkssport Association who has participated in the volksmarch every one of its 28 years (except the year his daughter got married). “I’ve been up there on the arm when it’s so foggy you can’t see the face. And I’ve been up there when it’s been snowing. You never know.”
The 6.2-mile hike takes walkers through a winding, wooded path up the world’s largest mountain carving in progress. This year, walkers will notice a tremendous amount of rock that has been taken off the horse’s head, said Jadwiga (Viga) Ziolkowski, the fourth of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski’s 10 children.
“They’ve been working on the horse’s head to get that more shaped,” she said. “They will notice that when they walk by.”
Hikers also will get an idea of the scope of the project her father began 65 years ago: It’s one thing to see the sculpture from the memorial’s viewing area, but it’s truly impressive to stand next to Crazy Horse’s head, which could fit all four 60-foot-high heads from Mount Rushmore inside it.
“It provides people an idea of how big it is,” Ziolkowski said. “You can’t back up far enough.”
The monument has been under construction since the first blast at the mountain in 1948, attended by five survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. When Korczak died in 1982, his family continued the work to honor Chief Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior. The sculpture will feature the upper torso of Crazy Horse on his horse with his arm outstretched, pointing toward the land of his ancestors. It is being carved in the round; when completed, it will be 641 feet long and 563 feet high.
This year’s volksmarch begins at 8 a.m. Saturday, June 1, and Sunday, June 2. The gates will open at 6 a.m. Walkers must be registered by 1 p.m. and off the mountain by 4 p.m.
Elverud, who usually works at the start gate, enjoys meeting the people.
“There are people from all over the United States plus overseas. We have a lot of people who come from overseas just to do this walk,” he said.
In fact, the Crazy Horse Volksmarch is the most popular organized hike in the U.S., with 15,000 walkers in a record year. Last year’s event, which is sponsored by the volkssport association, attracted 11,622 walkers.
For many of them, the hike is on their bucket list, Elverud said.
“Last year, a gentleman was there with two of his military buddies and one of them had a walker. And he walked the whole trail in his walker. We have stories like that every year,” he said, remembering one man who hiked Crazy Horse one year because his doctor told him he wouldn’t be here the next year.
Some hikers are inspired by Korczak’s dream and others have their own goals to accomplish. For some who are recovering from a health issue, just completing a 6.2-mile walk is a big accomplishment, Ziolkowski said.
“We get letters back saying how meaningful it was to them,” she said.
The event is also popular with families and children of all ages.
“I believe it’s such a family time,” Ziolkowski said. “They can be together, nobody has to dress up, they can be themselves and enjoy the day. You don’t get to climb that mountain very often. It’s an exciting time for people just to be a part of it.”
The first hike drew 150 people, and it has grown in popularity. A second walk, the Crazy Horse Autumn Volksmarch, is planned for Sept. 29-30.
“It’s the fastest-growing event we do here. No one’s in a hurry,” Ziolkowski said.
Except maybe Margie Laughlin, a Navajo jewelry maker from Arizona who has lived in Custer for 16 summers while working at Crazy Horse. She doesn’t just walk the trail; she runs it.
“I get out there at 7 or a little after. I just take off at 8 when they open the gates,” she said. “It’s so beautiful being one of the first up the mountain. The scenery is just amazing. To see the face right there, wow."
She appreciates the sense of accomplishment many feel when they get to the top.
“To someone, it might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and to say I’ve walked Crazy Horse is itself an amazing thing. It feels so good when you’ve accomplished it,” Laughlin said.
There are four checkpoints along the trail that feature water and snacks. Portable toilets are available and medical personnel are on hand in case anyone needs help or a ride.
Elverud will get his usual sneak peak at the trail, which can change from year to year.
“I pre-walk it and mark the trail the Thursday before,” he said. “We make sure the trail is all clear of fallen trees. It’s very well-marked. We use a lot of ribbon.”
But once the first 1,000 people are on the trail, all you have to do is follow their tracks, Elverud said.
After the hike, Ziolkowski encourages people to stop in to see some of the changes at the memorial, including a new mountain museum that will show some of the equipment that her father first used.
“We’re changing our exhibits in the museums. We want people to learn more what we do here as well,” she said. “The idea that somebody — Dad and Mom — have built this and made it such a tremendous place in hopes of honoring the Indian people ... we want people to understand the Indian story.”