South Dakota presents the traveler with a little bit of everything. Beautiful scenery, patriotic landmarks, historic locations, artistic wonders, and a wide range of wildlife. Stay for a couple of days or a couple of weeks… you will have plenty to fill your time.
Several years ago, our family stopped in South Dakota as a part of a two-week summer vacation. We were only there for a short period of time, however, our stay made us want to see more. This past year led us back to the Black Hills region to spend more time exploring the various attractions and natural wonders. I have provided a map below to illustrate the locations of these points of interest:
Our first stop is the iconic Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The memorial includes the mountain carving of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln’s faces (faces are a total of 60 feet in height); a museum with a movie detailing the history of the memorial; a sculptor’s studio with a scale model of the memorial; and the Presidential Trail which travels along the base of the mountain.
The evening program is highly recommended as veterans are honored and the mountain is lit following a film presented in the amphitheater. There is no admission to the memorial, however, the parking fee is $10. The facility does have full concessions, an ice cream shop, and a large souvenir shop/book store.
I would recommend at least a couple of hours to explore the area. The evening show leads the illumination of the mountain, so it is recommended to get seats before people pack into the amphitheater. Please check with the monument website for program times.
Custer State Park
Custer State Park is a scenic region with a multitude of wildlife, unique land formations, camping locations, and bodies of water. The park was named after the famed Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Some of the animals present include bison, elk, coyotes, mule deer, white tailed deer, mountain goats, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, river otters, pronghorn, and cougars. The bison herd includes over 1500 free roaming bison. Another notable animal are the feral burros, sure to beg for food as you drive by.
Your drive will also include spectacular water features, such as Sylvan Lake. In summer months, you will find people relaxing around the lake, and an occasional wedding with this spectacular view as a backdrop.
Caves: Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument
South Dakota presents two of the longest known cave systems in the world. Jewel Cave holds the worldwide number three title with 182 known miles and Wind Cave holds the number six spot, with 143 known miles. In addition to the length of these caves, they are ornamented with unique structures, such as Wind Cave’s extensive “Boxwork”.
Both parks offer guided tours for nominal fees. Plan on arriving early for the best chance to get the tour you desire. Tours are designed for varying skill levels and physical mobility.
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park was established in 1939 and preserves a unique region of eroded pinnacles. General Alfred Sully was noted for describing Badlands as, “hell with its fires burned out”. The Badlands Loop Road allows you to see a great deal of the park from convenient pull outs.
The Badlands Loop parallels Interstate 90, so it presents a convenient route if you are traveling through the region.
Keystone, SD: 1880 Railroad
Keystone, SD has enough points of interest and activities to warrant its own blog series. I wanted to take this moment to mention the 1880 Train which snakes through the Black Hills. The train travels from Keystone to Hill City, and gives the riders a true perspective on what these trains would be like in the days of the frontier. It takes a couple of hours for the trip, but it is worth it, especially if you have kids who love trains!
Deadwood , SD is most notable as the place where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back during a poker game. In the wild west, Deadwood was a booming gambling town in the Black Hills. Today, it is preserves many of its historic store fronts, with some modern features (e.g. a Holiday Inn Express). Mount Moriah Cemetery is the final resting place of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane (use caution driving in cemetery, as it has steep hills).
I would recommend at least 2-3 hours to tour Deadwood and its cemetery.
Devil’s Tower National Monument– Wyoming
Devil’s Tower National Monument is the very first national monument declared by a president. President Theodore Roosevelt declared the site a national monument in 1906. Since then, the monument has gained even more fame as the backdrop for the landing of the “mothership” in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Today, the monument presents a mile and a half paved trail circling the 1267 foot tower. The tower also attracts climbers from around the world, as they attempt one of the several climbing routes. I recommend at least 3 hours to explore the area and complete the loop hike around the tower.
The cost to enter the area is $15 per vehicle, or is included with the $80 America The Beautiful Pass.
I hope that this brief review has inspired you to consider South Dakota and the Black Hills as a vacation destination. Whether you can catch some sites as a part of a larger trip, or if you make this region as your destination, you will not be disappointed in all that it has to offer.