Recap: Four top sites to see in the Black Hills — plus one!

Bison in Badlands

If traveling in the good ol’ US of A is in your future, take it from us: It doesn’t get much better than the Black Hills of South Dakota — and beyond!

We’ve spent the last month or so writing about great places to see in the Black Hills and a little bit into Wyoming (There’s that Devils Tower, you know), so we thought a recap of our trip in May 2019 might be in order. Although we drove through at least 10 or so memorable places, here are our Top Four in the Black Hills — and one in Wyoming — you don’t want to miss. Plus, we’re got info on where to stay and how to get there. So, recap the Black Hills with us!

Badlands of SD, Sandstone buttes
Blue skies, sandstone buttes, grasses waving in the wind — The Badlands of South Dakota

Logistics

Planning a trip? Here are some of our best suggestions and recommendations.

South Dakota welcome sign
  1. Download a map of the area from Black Hills and Badlands or Black Hills Maps to plan the itinerary that best suits you and your family.
  2. Plan your trip using resources from Travel South Dakota and Black Hills and Badlands.
  3. Find a central location to use as a base for traveling. We chose Rapid City, SD for our beginning and ending points, choosing a round trip flight from Knoxville’s TYS to Rapid City’s RAP.
  4. Book reservations for nights on the road. You can book in advance or “play it by ear,” but with many people staying in RV campgrounds, motels, and bed-and-breakfasts now, check ahead. Here’s where we stayed during our 7-day trip:
  • Rapid City, SD: Hotel Alex Johnson — for first two nights and the last night> It was our base while exploring Wall, SD; the Badlands; Rapid City; and
  • Creekside Lodge in Custer State Park, Route 16A on the grounds of the State Game Lodge — our base for Sylvan Lake, Spearfish Canyon, and Wind Cave National Park.
  • VRBO for lodging in Deadwood, SD — a good base not only for Deadwood but also for Sturgis, Scenic, Belle Fourche, and Beulah, WY.
The Badlands -- boardwalk

Our Top Sites to See

Here are several “don’t miss” sites, but, by no means, the only places to see. Click on the links to read full posts on our favorite places, but don’t hesitate to add your sites to see in the Comments section below.

The Badlands

Motorcycles in the Badlands

Badlands National Park is one sweet ride — 244,000 acres of sandstone buttes, and mixed-grass prairie — not to mention home to bison, big horn sheep and prairie dogs. When we found at the end of our week in SD that we had an extra day, we returned for a second look at Badlands— and we’re not sorry we did. What we didn’t see at the North Unit on Day One, we saw in the South Unit — grasses swaying in the wind against the backdrop of sandstone formations inviting us to take long, slow walks on boardwalks and trails. Pack good walking shoes, sunscreen, and water — and get ready to be amazed. We’re thinking you’ll wish you had more time there, too.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park - mother & baby bison

South Dakota is home to 13 state parks, but at 71,000 acres, Custer is one of the biggest. With more places to roam, Custer State Park boasts a long list of recreational activities like biking, hiking, fishing, bird watching, camping, showshoeing, and bison watching (if you’re lucky)! Be sure to save time to kayak at Sylvan Lake, follow motorcycles through Needles Highway, look for waterfalls in Spearfish Canyon and wave at buffalo heading home at sundown. (Warning: Don’t put your arm out the car window if a herd is coming your way!)

We haven’t mentioned Wind Cave National Park in any of our posts, mainly because our pictures inside the caves were pretty dark, but also because it’s temporarily closed for now. When it reopens, though, get there: best example of boxwork formations in any cave system in the world and miles — yes, miles — of unexplored caves yet to come. The website cautions against using a GPS to find Wind Cave. Instead, take a look at the routes in this site to make sure you get there before the last tour departs.

Wind Cave Natl Park - boxwork
Boxwork in Wind Cave National Park

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial, SD
As close as you get from the ground — Crazy Horse Memorial

You’ll be impressed, as we were, at the 87-foot high head of Crazy Horse, but we were mostly touched by the stories of Chief Henry Standing Bear’s desire to honor the Lakota Indians and their leader. Travel along US Highway 16/385 (the Crazy Horse Memorial Highway) to see this tribute, a marvel of design work and onsite carving, and some of the finest artifacts of Indian culture in its adjacent museum. Located about four miles north of the town of Custer and 17 miles southwest of Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial offers something memorable for every member of the family. We recommend the bus ride to the base of the sculpture, but there’s a more expensive helicopter tour that drops you off at the chin!

Devils Tower

Devils Tower, US Flag
Not in South Dakota, but close — it’s Devils Tower in Wyoming!

Located in Wyoming, not South Dakota, Devils Tower is right at the edge of the Black Hills, so adding it to your Black Hills itinerary is a no-brainer. You may have seen Devils Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but even if you haven’t, this 867-foot tall tower of rock will astound you, movie connection or not. When you move in close to see its columnar jointing and watch how climbers seem to scale it with relative ease, you’ll want to spend a couple of hours or more at the site. Take the 1.5 mile hike as we did, or just stand and stare amazingly at this natural phenomenon. It’s definitely worth driving about an hour from Spearfish, SD along Wyoming 24 to see. It’s our nation’s first National Monument!

Mount Rushmore National Monument

Selfies with the greats — Mount Rushmore

Perhaps our favorite of all the sites is Mount Rushmore. Carved into the granite of the South Dakota Black Hills, these 60-foot heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln make just about every visitor stop dead still at the Avenue of Flags as they view this patriotic tribute for the first time. If you time your trip just right, you can be in the area for the Evening Lighting Ceremony. But even if you can’t stay late, don’t miss the ranger talk on the conception and construction of Mount Rushmore. Then grab a TJ’s Vanilla Ice Cream (yes, it’s a Thomas Jefferson recipe!) at Carver’s Cafe before heading out!

Deadwood actors, Deadwood SD
Two actors from the shootout in Deadwood

Well, those are the “biggies” of the Black Hills and beyond. But lots of other stops can round out your road trip to South Dakota:

  • Deadwood — Where casinos are open for business, and actors recreate a shoot-em-up at 6:00 every night
  • Sturgis — Even when it’s not rally time, you can (well, almost) ride like the wind on an Indian motorcycle and buy t-shirts to prove you were there.
  • Belle Fourche — See the big round medallion that proves the center of the nation really is in South Dakota
  • Scenic — Not a stop really, but a drive-though of a town sporting some of the creepiest abandoned houses in the Black Hills (or maybe anywhere).
Needles Hwy, Custer State Park SD
Comin’ through — Needles Highway, Custer State Park

So, make a plan. Get out the map, pick what you’d love to see, and then check with each location to confirm what’s open and what’s not. Now that we’re in a pandemic, touring can change every day, but there’s still plenty to see that’s open in South Dakota.

Travel well,

Rusha & Bert

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