South Dakota offers dynamic scenery and iconic national landmarks and it should be high on your adventure list if you haven’t already been.
Fly into Rapid City and you’ll be situated a little over an hour drive from Badlands National Park on the east, and about a half hour from the Black Hills area on the west, featuring the Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse.
My travel buddy Chris and I headed out first towards
Badlands National Park. On the entire drive there from Rapid City you’ll see colorful road signs about every mile or so encouraging you to stop at Wall Drug Store, one of those all-American roadside attractions. And let me tell you, it’s more than just a drug store. It’s like some sort of Walmart type store from 100 years ago in the west. A real cool place to meander around for an hour or two. They have souvenirs, restaurants (where you can get their famous 25 cent coffee and free water), clothing stores, and just about everything and anything you can imagine with an old timey and wild west flare. Make time for a stop there for sure.
Located nearby and on the way to the park you can stop for about 30 minutes at The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, where at the height of the cold war, America had an intercontinental ballistic missiles ready for blast off to hit the Soviet Union in a matter of minutes at speeds of 15,000 mph.
A short drive and you’ll find yourself entering Badlands National Park, with rugged and dramatic landscapes spanning layered rock formations, steep canyons and towering spires. I do want to point out that this park really turns into something completely different around sunrise/sunset. The otherwise grayish looking rock formations start to take on a reddish and purple color scheme and “pop” more for pictures. We hiked the Notch Trail, which is a 1.3 mile out and back that features a fun wooded swingy type of stair you have to ascend and then eventually descend on the side of a small cliff. The hike leads up to a lookout point. We also hiked the Door Trail, an easy 1 mile out and back with sweeping 360 degree views.
Almost magically, right around the final moments of sunset, as we were driving around on the well-maintained road in the park, we spotted a Bighorn Sheep majestically relaxing in the saddle of a cliff. It almost seemed unreal because it never once moved its head, even slightly. Stoic and proud, it seemed to be ritualistically ending the day for all of us in the park and ushering in nightfall to this amazing place.
For accommodations inside the park, The Cedar Pass Lodge is excellent and their pricing is much lower than most national park lodges that are located inside the park.
For an almost completely different type of landscape, the Black Hills of South Dakota, which is densely covered with trees, is great for hiking any time of day. We did the Black Elk Trail, which is a 6-mile loop that takes you up to the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains (7,200 ft.). At the top is a historic stone fire tower, and luckily, we made it to the top just as a storm went through. It was the perfect place to seek shelter and watch the storm pass by in front of us. After the hike, a nice dip in Sylvan Lake near the trailhead parking area will hit the spot for you and refresh.
No trip to South Dakota is complete though without stopping to see the mountain carving landmarks of Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse (the world’s largest mountain carving). Unfortunately, another storm was approaching as we were at Crazy Horse so we couldn’t take the shuttle from the parking/museum area to go up close to experience it. But that’s a good enough reason to need to go back in my book!
We stayed at the State Game Lodge in the Black Hills. It’s located in a pretty convenient location for exploring the Black Hills and is historically significant as President Calvin Coolidge (remember him? Lol) used this as his residency during his presidency in the summer of 1927. (And word is, the service there has gone down since the President left.) Bison frequently hang around the grounds, so be sure to keep at least 50 ft. away.
I’d recommend at least a day and a half for Badlands National Park and two full days for the Black Hills for a quality adventure. But like anything, the longer you can stay and explore, the richer the experience.
South Dakota impressed me with an almost “laissez-faire” charm. It’s there just waiting for you to explore, but it’s not going to beg you to visit with any bells or whistles. It’s a solid choice for a quality adventure…just as solid as the granite on Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse.