& Free Trip to Margaritaville
The western region of South Dakota has one unique feature after another. As you travel, the midwestern farm and grasslands morph from rolling hills and majestic granite spires to tree-covered summits and uncommon stone outcroppings. The Black Hills are filled with a rich history, tracing back to the Native American people who named the Hills “Paha Sapa” for the ponderosa pines that abound.
We chose to stay in Rapid City, South Dakota and make that our base as we roamed the surrounding hills. The area has one of the largest concentrations of national parks, monuments, and caves in the Midwest. Along with the natural beauty that abounds, there are a multitude of tourist spots and typical vacation activities for all ages. There are too many things to write about in the space allowed, but here are some of the highlights of our trip.
About 30 minutes from Rapid City is one particular Black Hill you’ve seen a “million times.” Hands down, Mount Rushmore is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the United States and one of America’s most visited national monuments. Located near Keystone, South Dakota, the monument sculpted by Gutzon Borglum features the massive carved faces of American Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. This national memorial is visited by more than two million people every year who gain appreciation for this feat of engineering. Although it took 14 years to carve, scientists predict Mount Rushmore will endure – projecting a lifespan at about 7 million years! Even though we had seen it “a million times,” it was still awe-inspiring to be there in person.
THE BLACK HILLS
The Black Hills are not black. The areas covered in pines are certainly dark, and if you see them from afar, they can give you that impression–because of the shadows the trees cast upon the stone. Black or not, they are beautiful and, depending on the time of day, can range from granite gray to shades of orange, brown, gold, and even purple. At every time of day, they are beautiful no matter the color.
We expected the Badlands to be interesting, but not majestic. They are both. The forests of the Black Hills quickly transform into a landscape left desolate by water and wind. South Dakota’s Badlands are a testament to the power of nature. Thanks to the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway, the majesty of the Badlands can be experienced from your vehicle. The two-lane road runs about 40 miles and there are plenty of scenic overlooks and places to stop for photos as you wind through ancient rock formations, cliffs, and colorful spires. There are also several trailheads to choose from if you brought your hiking boots.
Whether coming or going to the Badlands, take the Wall, South Dakota exit on I-90 for a stop at Wall Drug, the ultimate roadside attraction at 76,000 square feet. A unique adventure in and of itself, Wall Drug is a piece of South Dakota history known for its famous homemade donuts, rolls, pie and ice cream, legendary hot beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes and homemade gravy, buffalo burgers, and 5-cent coffee. The store opened in 1931 with the promise of free ice water for thirsty travelers (which they still provide), along with the largest privately-owned Western and illustration art collections in the country. Nowadays the city of Wall, home to 800 year-round residents, attracts more than 2 million visitors each year thanks to Wall Drug, a piece of South Dakota history. And yes, the donuts are delicious.
THE CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL
Under construction since 1948, the Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest mountain carving. Located about 17 miles from Mount Rushmore, the memorial features the Oglala Lakota leader, and when complete, will be 563 feet tall, the tallest sculpture in the world. The stated mission of the memorial is to protect and preserve the culture, tradition, and living heritage of the North American Indians. The campus includes the mountain carving, the Indian University of North America, the Native American Educational and Cultural Center, and the Indian Museum of North America. Make some time to enjoy the inspiration to “never forget your dreams,” along with lessons in historical and contemporary Native culture set amidst the scenic beauty of the Black Hills.
CUSTER STATE PARK
Tucked in the Black Hills, not far from Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, is Custer State Park. The largest state park in South Dakota, it encompasses 71,000 acres of ever-changing topography. From rolling prairies to the granite spires the Black Hills are known for, scenic drives and the wildlife are the big draw when visitors do not have days to stay and explore the park.
The Wildlife Loop Road travels through 18 miles of grasslands and hills where a multitude of species live and are available to see in their natural habitat, including free range bison. A herd of bighorn sheep backed up traffic for a while as they crossed the road and stopped to say hello. Keep your eyes peeled for prairie dog towns as these busy mammals pop up and are often as interested in you as you are in them. The Annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup happens each fall and this year is scheduled for September 23-25, with the remaining portion of the herd scheduled to be worked in October.
Another popular drive within the park is the narrow, windy 14-mile road called Needles Highway. When traveling the highway, visitors will pass the beautiful Sylvan Lake as well as a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, which was named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing. Needles Highway is closed in the winter months due to the narrow road, so plan your visit during the other three seasons.
SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE
Belle Fourche, South Dakota is federally recognized as the geographic center of the United States. Although the actual center lies somewhat north of the town on private property, there is a marker you can stand on adjacent to the Tri-State Museum, making a good photo opportunity. Also on the Museum grounds are the flags of all 50 states. We are always happy to see our own Lone Star!
STILL IN THE BLACK HILLS…AND WORTH THE TRIP
Across the Wyoming/South Dakota state line, about an hour west of Spearfish, rising 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, is Devils Tower National Monument. Devils Tower boasts one of the Earth’s most impressive geological features and was designated as America’s first national monument in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt.
A sacred place to more than 24 Native American tribes, the Tower is also known as Bear Lodge. Many tribes today still utilize the park for traditional ceremonies and learning about the differing cultural perspectives in very interesting. As you drive up to the tower, you will be offered changing views as you approach. Observing it from all angles is necessary to truly “see” the Tower.
Devils Tower boasts a climbing history that dates back to 1893, when it was first climbed by two local ranchers using a homemade wooden ladder. Climbers from all over the world consider Devils Tower to be a unique and premier climbing area. Currently, about 5,000-6,000 visiting climbers ascend Devils Tower each year.
If you visit Devils Tower, take note of the restroom facilities (you can then thank me later). The facilities nearest the bookstore are what Texans expect in a public restroom (namely, toilets that flush and air conditioning). However, if you opt for the facilities nearest the trailhead, expect otherwise. Since these are closest to the parking lot, it is easy to assume these are the “main” facilities. They are not. They are glorified outhouses. They are a hole in the ground with a building around them and a semblance of our own porcelain gems. You have been warned.
Devils Tower National Monument truly boasts one of Earth’s most impressive geological features. Spend a day at the monument hiking around the Tower or exploring lesser-known areas of the park but as Mitzi and I say, beware of Hell’s bathrooms.
SO MUCH MORE…
Rapid City, known as the City of Presidents, was an excellent place to use as our hub. Downtown Rapid City boasts a series of life-size bronze statues of our nation’s past presidents along the city’s streets and sidewalks. Whether you’re enjoying downtown shopping, dining, or other attractions, you can experience this walking tour free of charge.
We literally have not scratched the stone’s surface of things to do in western South Dakota. There are so many more towns to explore like Keystone, Deadwood, Sturgis, and more. Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, two of the longest cave systems in the world, are also part of this geographic treasure.
Whatever choices you make, you will be sure to discover a vacation that captures the spirt of America perfect for a family, a couple, or a group of friends. You’ll make memories that will last a lifetime…and that’s just the beginning.