One of the great aspects of this area of the country is the land. Luckily, much of it is protected in some form by the National Park system, and you’d regret not seeing at least some of it. If you’re in the area, be sure to explore some of the great parks and monuments South Dakota has to offer. If you have the time, you can even head over to Wyoming for Devil’s Tower or Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons farther west.
We didn’t stop at all of the places I’ll mention, but we managed to see most of them during our week-long trip!
Badlands National Park
Though I’ve already explored the Badlands, they definitely deserve another shout out. The area is jampacked with beautiful vistas, interesting geology, and some great hiking trails. Plan to spend a few hours here, the whole day if you’re doing the longer hikes. Be sure to bring enough water for everyone, so you can enjoy the landscape without getting dehydrated.
Custer State Park
Want to see where the deer and the antelope play? How about some bison or the famous begging burros? You’ll find it all here in Custer State Park. Custer is South Dakota’s first and largest state park, and has grown quite a bit since its founding. It’s easy to simply drive through the park and spot the animals, or you can opt for a more intimate experience at Sylvan Lake or Legion Lake. The park does offer camping, and if you have the time, you’ll enjoy spending it at a campsite or at a lodge.
If you’re serious about spotting the animals in the park, or want to be near the buffalo, stop by one of the visitor’s centers for some information. The rangers do a great job of keeping in touch with each other and knowing where the herds are. They should be able to tell you where the bison herds are as well as where to find the burros. Bring some carrots or apples for the burros, they’re used to it!
Check out last week’s post for some more info on Custer State Park, Jewel Cave, and the Custer area.
Jewel Cave National Monument
More than 400 feet below ground, the deepest part of Jewel Cave beckons to those with a sense of adventure. The geology of the Black Hills region is fascinating, and the caves don’t disappoint. The regular scenic tour is moderate – there are some steep stairs, and a lot of steps, but it isn’t altogether difficult to hike. You’ll be on a guided tour, so any issues or questions that come up can be answered. If you don’t get claustrophobic, try the Wild Caving Tour on for size. During the summer, both tours are prone to selling out in the mornings, so be sure to get there early and get your tickets!
Interestingly, much of the cave has yet to be explored! Although I’m not a spelunker by trade, the idea really appeals to me. In this age of instant information, how often are you reminded that there are still mysteries in the world?
Wind Cave National Park
Although we didn’t make it to Wind Cave this time, I have been in the past. It’s set up a little differently from Jewel Cave, and encompasses a large portion of land above ground, in addition to the cave area itself. Above ground, Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, and the Black Hills National Forest form a massive protected area for wildlife. You’ll find similar animals throughout the area, and Wind Cave has a large bison herd, separate from the Custer State Park herd.
Pic caption (The herds at Wind Cave and Custer State Park are kept separate from one another, to promote genetic diversity and resistance to disease.)
The cave itself is home to some fantastic boxwork and many large caverns. Tours are booked through the Wind Cave National Park Visitor Center, with a few different options and plenty of available times.
Black Hills National Forest
Not so much a destination in itself, as an area housing plenty of individual sites and scenic drives, the Black Hills are a great way to explore western South Dakota. All of the sites listed here are found in and around the Black Hills, as that’s our homebase when we visit.
The area is very cold in the winter, and very hot in the summer, so plan your travel accordingly. Definitely avoid August if possible, due in equal parts to the heat and the Harley Davidson Sturgis Rally. If that’s your scene, go for it! Otherwise, steer clear, just because the area is very overcrowded. Famous for its wooded roads and pigtail bridges, you’ll want to drive through the forests just as much as the bikers, and it’s well worth the many long drives in the area.
Mt. Rushmore National Monument
If you’re going to South Dakota, people will undoubtedly ask if you’re going to see Mt. Rushmore. The site itself is interesting, and offers a decent museum to bring you through the history of the sculpture’s inception, planning, and execution. Come here for the classic roadtrip photo of the family with Mt. Rushmore in the background, and learn a bit about the history of the nation in the early 1900s.
I’ll be honest, it’s smaller than I expected, but it’s definitely worth a visit! The gift shop is usually packed, enter at your peril. Staff will direct you to the appropriate parking garage/level for your vehicle size and based on availability. Keep an eye out when walking from the garage to the visitor complex and site. If it’s a cool day, you might see some mountain goats climbing the rocks!
Crazy Horse Memorial
Though not in the national system, Crazy Horse is a massive stone carving that’s been in progress for the last 50 years. It’s a monumental undertaking (the world’s largest of it’s kind…much bigger than Rushmore) and is funded and managed by the Mission of Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. You can easily see the carving from Route 385, but the size can’t truly be appreciated until you’re up close. You’ll have to stop in at the visitor center (off Route 385) for more details, and to get closer to the sculpture. Though the carving will take at least another 50 years, you can see the profile of Crazy Horse, as well as the future location of his arm and the head of his horse.
Crazy Horse was part of the Oglala Sioux, native to the Black Hills area. Famous for leading resistance against the United States during a period of federal expansion during the late 1800s, Crazy Horse is one of the most historically well known Sioux Native Americans. Understandably, the Memorial is closely connected to the Sioux populations still living in the area and does not accept state or federal funding, choosing instead to operate under donations and its own admissions profits.
The Black Hills region is covered in things to do and places to see. I’ve got one more post lined up for you folks, hitting some of the major towns we explored throughout the area. Once I get that up, we’ll just about be finished with the trip! I know I’ll be going back to this particular region of the country sooner rather than later, and I hope you’re inspired to make the trek yourself one of these days.