As I stand on a grassy knoll in western South Dakota, I see this land without the cities, highways, powerlines and billboards. I can imagine what it was like for early explorers and settlers.
Today we scoff at this heartland. We see it as a state to pass through on the way to greater destinations. Well I found plenty to love…
Let’s Go! Learn 7 reasons to visit South Dakota…
1. Sioux Falls, South Dakota
The eastern border of South Dakota showcases the river town of Sioux Falls. A variety of native tribes were drawn to the cascades of the Big Sioux River. Ho-Chunk, Ioway, Otoe, Missouri, Omaha, Kansa, Osage, Dakota, and Cheyenne people inhabited the region.
Today, the city planners have fostered a 21st Century renaissance in Sioux Falls. A beautiful riverwalk, eclectic Sculpturewalk, and a plethora of trendy lodging/dining options makes Sioux Falls the perfect gateway to the State.
2. Tracing the footsteps of Pioneers
The nineteenth century in American history saw a relentless train of pioneers and emigrants trudge across this vast land. They faced natural obstacles such as swollen rivers, infinite grasslands, impassable mountain ranges, miles without a drop of water and unimaginable weather. There were psychological battles of monotony, loneliness and paralyzing fear. Pestilence, starvation and exhaustion dogged the footsteps of the travelers everyday.
The major pioneer trails did not run directly through South Dakota. They did however, traverse neighboring Nebraska to the south and Wyoming to the west. The Homestead Act of 1862 opened the prairies to the settlers of South Dakota. Many of these homesteaders traveled portions of the Oregon and California Trails to reach their destinations in South Dakota.
3. Badlands of South Dakota
The miles of South Dakota prairie are still home to nine Native American tribes. It is a full day’s drive across these spacious grasslands to reach the Badlands National Park. I can only imagine the shock of Native Americans and later, European explorers, as they swished through the deep, luscious prairie grasses, stopped short at the edge of the rugged, unforgiving craters. The Lakota people call this area mako sica, which literally translates to “bad lands.” There could not be a better name for this region. Jagged canyons and buttes impede navigation. Rains make the wet clay slick and sticky. The winters are cold and windy, the summers are hot and dry, and the few water sources that exist are normally muddy and unsafe to drink.
Badlands National Park
Located 75 miles east of Rapid City, SD, the Badlands National Park started as a National Monument in 1929 and redesignated as a National Park in 1939. The park covers 244,000 acres of geological formations and prairie grasses. The rock formations contain sandstones, siltstones, mudstones, claystones limestones volcanic ash and shale. These intimidating peaks and canyons were created by a combination of deposits and erosion. The rocks were deposited by natural forces such as shallow inland seas, rivers and ferocious winds. Erosion began about 500,000 years ago as the Cheyenne and White Rivers carved their way through the landscape. As I tromped across these formations they were great sand castles ready to melt away with the first wet wave. In fact, the Badlands are still eroding – it is estimated that the Badlands erode at the rate of one inch per year, which is a rapid rate for rocks.
Badlands National Park is also home to bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs. (Oh and rattlesnakes). We will take a closer look at South Dakota wildlife in just a bit.
Go! Learn Things about other “Badlands”…
There are badlands formations all over country. Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, and New Mexico all have “badlands” to visit. Other NPS badlands can be found in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico, or opt for ones on National Grasslands like Toadstool Geologic Park in Nebraska.
4. Black Hills National Forest
We have discussed National Forests before on this blog. National Forests are not quite the same as National Parks. They are often less crowded with more recreational activities allowed. The U.S. National Forest Service manages these lands. In spite of the differences, National Forests are still very special regions set aside to be preserved and protected for present and future generations. Black Hills National Forest was spectacular. I fell in love with the rolling hills dotted with grazing bison and the rugged cliffs that inspired Mount Rushmore.
The Black Hills National Forest covers 1.5 million acres in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. These acres are packed with grasslands, granite peaks, wildlife, forest streams, lakes, campgrounds, picnic areas, caves and days of exploring. Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Wind Cave National Park are some of the highlights.
Rapid City, about 25 miles outside of the National Forest, is a good location to reach all the different attractions. Because of the Covid in 2020, lodging within the NF was limited. In other years staying closer in the Forest would be convenient.
Go! Learn More about Covid and National Parks…
5. Custer State Park
Custer State Park offers a variety of scenic drives and opportunities for outdoor recreation along the way. The park is often confused with the site of Custer’s infamous battle. That site is the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, 300 miles to the northwest in Montana. While that is a poignant and worthy park to visit, it is beyond the scope of this post.
Custer State Park is an amazing opportunity to interact with the flora and fauna of South Dakota. There are three main scenic drives through Custer State Park, each showcasing unique topography and wildlife. Let’s look at those closer:
This is 18 miles of grasslands, rolling hills and pine forests. It is on this loop that you will inevitably encounter the wildlife that Custer State Park is known for. The rangers recommend early morning or late evening for best wildlife viewing. Honestly, we found fascinating critters any time of day.
The Needles Highway is a spectacular drive through ponderosa pine and Black Hills spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. This is a 14 mile adventure ride with 2 narrow tunnels and switchbacks through spikey granite formations called “needles”.
Iron Mountain Rd
Iron Mountain Road is a 17 mile scenic drive from Custer State Park to Mount Rushmore. There is a quicker route along the highway, but why would you miss this twisting and turning experience with 3 tunnels that open up to breathtaking views of the Mount Rushmore Memorial.
6. Mount Rushmore
After spending days immersed in the wilderness of the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a little surreal. It is an American icon and certainly on the bucket list of National Park aficionados. We didn’t spend a lot of time at the memorial but it was worth the scenic drive along Iron Mountain Rd.
We were drawn to the lighting ceremony at dusk. I would recommend timing your visit for this event if possible.
As a wannabe wildlife photographer, the Black Hills were a jackpot. The wildlife was prolific and accessible. When I say accessible, I mean that they were within range of my lens, but we certainly kept a respectful distance from all animals. The region also had small back roads and trails that were less traveled with better wildlife sightings.
Seriously! Visit South Dakota!
I understand now why a trip to the Black Hills is an iconic family road trip. Every mile was an adventure. Of course there are plenty of cheesy tourist traps along the highways. If Wall Drug is your “cup of tea” or weather drives you indoors there are ways to entertain the family. But I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to leave the trappings behind. The wilderness of the Black Hills, wildlife of Custer State Park, vast grasslands and alien landscapes of the Badlands will thrill everyone.