There’s more to South Dakota than just the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and Wall Drug. Granted, these icons are places that you should see if you are there. But widen your circle of travel a bit, and you have an opportunity to see so much more. There is more diversity to the South Dakota landscape than you likely hold in your mind’s eye at the moment. There is a deeper history than the one told in the story of Mount Rushmore, and even a deeper history about Mount Rushmore than the one we often hear. The Badlands will boggle the mind and give rise to imaginings of Indians living and surviving and warring among the cliffs and pinnacles and buttes that make up the Badlands. It is easy to imagine how the early explorers must have felt when they happened upon this harsh landscape, and to further imagine Wild West stories and the Native Americans’ efforts to hide out from the Americans in an attempt to survive their persecution, which ultimately led to starvation and death from exposure to the elements. You can see replicas of dinosaur bones and learn of volcanic eruptions that created the geologic layers in the Badlands. And you can still get a 10¢ cup o’ jo at Wall Drug. So, do go to these places. And then go see more.
South Dakota is home to grasslands, rivers, lakes and reservoirs, caves, and the forested Black Hills. If you concentrate your visit on the south-western region of the state, you can hit all of these systems. You can begin your journey at the Badlands, and make a loop in a clockwise direction. You will close the loop at Custer State Park, just a bit southwest of the Badlands. From the Ben Reifel Visitor Center on the eastern end of the Badlands, you can take a drive south, southwest on small county roads to see the historical Wounded Knee and on to the significantly infamous Pine Ridge Reservation. Before you go to either place, if you are unfamiliar with the background of the Reservation, I recommend you read up on the history and current conditions (try here, here and here for starters). In Pine Ridge, you can visit the Heritage Center on the Red Cloud Indian School campus and support the local Ogala Lakota artists in a community that would greatly benefit from your support. A drive across Highway 18 from Pine Ridge west to Oelrichs takes you through a small stretch of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The rolling grasslands are a sight to see. Mixed prairie grasses shimmer and dance in the wind across undulating hills. On a mostly sunny day, the endless blue skies contrast with billowing white clouds. There is something grand in those South Dakota skies and majestic in the waves of grasses. It is worth a slow drive through this section to take in the views. If you have time, veer off course to visit more of the 60,000 (non-contiguous) acres of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.
Once you pass through the grasslands, Highway 18 will turn north and head up to Hot Springs. This historic little town was once known for its spas, with their natural mineral-infused hot springs. The public spas no longer exist, and the only recreation that currently exists for the hot springs is the indoor water park called Evans Plunge. According to the Chamber of Commerce’s website, however, Minnekahta Springs, an historic public spa, is under construction and will be again open to the public upon completion. There is a walking path that runs alongside Fall River in town and ends up at Kidney Springs, a spot under a gazebo where a fountain of sorts spills water out of the side of the rock face. Soak your hands for a bit in the warm water. You can feel the presence of the minerals. You can feel muscles relax, and you will wish you could take a full-on dip in this gloriousness. In lieu of that, you can fill up a water bottle and sip on the lukewarm water, as you read about the mineral contents and benefits on a sign posted on the fountain. A stroll around town will offer up views of original sandstone buildings from the late 19thand early 20thCenturies, a beautiful mural painted on the side of a building near the police station, and coffee shops and restaurants in which to get your caffeine fix and fill your stomach. As you stroll around town, you will inevitably notice a grand structure at the top of a hill. You can climb a set of steps on the west side of town to reach this structure, and it is worth the climb. This is the site of the Battle Mountain Sanitarium. It was originally constructed at the end of the 19thCentury to provide care for veterans. While underutilized today, it still provides health care to veterans and is a designated National Historic Landmark.
For a trip back to the Ice Age, visit the nearby Mammoth Site. With hands-on activities, exhibits, active fossil excavations, and informational films, it’ll both educate and entertain the imagination. Also close to Hot Springs is the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, where you can see rescued horses roam free. Pre-scheduled tours are required to see these horses and are available for a fee in lengths of 2, 3, or 6 hours. Also close to Hot Springs is Wind Cave National Park. This national park is known for what is underground, but I highly recommend you spend some time on top as well. You’ll need to schedule a tour to see the cave sites, but there is also ample hiking on the surface through prairies and pines, as well. A drive in the early morning hours is likely to reward you with ample sightings of buffalo grazing quietly in the grass and few others with which you will be sharing the experience. It is also possible to hike off-trail in Wind Cave but be sure you have the skills to do so before you embark on such an activity!
To finish up a journey through southwest South Dakota, spend some time in Custer State Park. If you can, make it several days. Custer has several campgrounds, many of which are suitable for both tents and RVs and are dispersed in various areas throughout this 71,000-acre park. There is much to see and do here, from hiking trails to historic sites to scenic drives, so allow yourself some time. Some highlights that are not to be missed: drive the Needles Highway and spend some time at Sylvan Lake, hike up Black Elk Peak, and treat yourself to breakfast at Blue Bell Lodge.
The Needles Highway is a 14-mile stretch of SD 87 that begins just west of Legion Lake and winds its way through spectacular, jaw-dropping, scenery before it ends at Sylvan Lake. Be warned, there are size restrictions on this road and if your vehicle is wider than 8’4” or taller than 11’3”, you will not be able to drive this route! If you can make it, though, the trip is amazing. Give yourself plenty of time to complete it, as not only is the speed for driving slow, but you will miss out if you do not allow plenty of time to pull over and take it all in as you go…especially if you are the driver. This is a winding road. It is narrow. There are two rocky, narrow, tunnels that are a bit on the nerve-wracking side to drive through. But they are so cool, too. And the scenic stretch of highway finishes up at Sylvan Lake, a deep blue, rock and spire lined lake that can pull your eyes into its depths for hours. You’ll want to walk around the lake, to sit by its side and stare into it or get lost in daydreams as you gaze off at nearby rock formations or distant hills.
The most popular hike up to Black Elk Peak begins at Sylvan Lake, but you are going to likely want to do this on a different day than the one you spend driving the Needles Highway and lounging around Sylvan Lake. The hike can take several hours, and you should count on spending time at the top, where there is a historic fire tower to see, exploring to be done, and 360 views for miles and miles. Pack a lunch, snacks, and plenty of water, especially in the summer months. The peak was formerly known as Harney Peak, but was renamed Black Elk Peak in 2016 to reflect its importance to Native Americans, and it is the highest point east of the Rockies and west of the Pyrenees. The rock-constructed fire tower at the top was built in the 1930s by the CCC. The fire tower was historically manned by a family, who lived there during the fire season. The CCC also constructed a mini-reservoir where you can take a dip to cool off once you get to the top. While the trail starts in Custer State Park, most of it passes through Black Elk Wilderness. Be sure to sign the registry and carry your portion of the (free) permit with you as you hike. You’ll see this registry as you enter the Black Elk Wilderness. Deposit your permit in the box on your way out.
Blue Bell Lodge is a rustic-themed resort within Custer State Park with a lodge, cabins, campground, restaurant/bar, and a chuck wagon. It is located on SD 87 in the central western region of the park, surrounded by pine forests with their aromatic scent that will call to mind Paul Bunyan, or perhaps Thoreau for the more poetic minded. The scents and scenery here lie in stark contrast to the prairies of the lower elevations. On cooler days, wood fire smells fill the air, and the log-sided lodge welcomes you into its interior, to the warm restaurant inside. Breakfast here is delicious. The menu is different from what you’ll find in other restaurants within the park. On the off-season, there is no wait, but during the high season, reservations are not a bad idea. They also make a mean bloody Mary.
While you are staying in Custer State Park, you can make the trip to Mount Rushmore on the one hand, and, on the other, to the historically contrasting Crazy Horse Memorial. I found the trip to Crazy Horse to be one of many conflicting emotions (read my post about it here), but still worth it for the education and the site itself. The Crazy Horse Monument is a work in progress. The monument was started in 1947 by a man named Korczak Ziolkowski, and with an invitation by Chief Standing Bear. While Ziolkowski has passed away, his wife and most of his ten children are still involved in seeing this ongoing project through. The monument grounds consist of a museum, restaurant, informational center, and gift shop. There is also a university for Native Americans on the site. The Crazy Horse Monument is only partially completed. His head is complete and part of the arm, and you can begin to see the faintest of outlines of the horse’s head. The monument is clearly visible from the central visitor’s grounds. You can purchase a ticket for a van tour up the mountain for a face-to-face look. These tickets are pricey, as the funds go directly towards further progress on the monument’s construction. But you can also take a ride to the base of the mountain for $4 per person, or, twice a year (once in spring and once in fall), there is a free Volksmarch up the mountain that is open to the public. The Crazy Horse Monument also holds special events to educate the public on Lakota traditions and history through Speaker’s Series and music and dance performances on the outdoor patio. Admission onto the monument grounds is $24 per car for two people, $30 per car for more than two people. The weekend I went, there was a special food drive and your admission was free in exchange for a donation of three cans of food per person. Crazy Horse Memorial is funded entirely on donations. I highly recommend a visit to Crazy Horse Memorial if you are also going to go to Mount Rushmore. You will learn about the less often discussed history of Mount Rushmore, and the impacts of the construction of Mount Rushmore to the cultural and spiritual well-being of the area’s Native Americans.
South Dakota is much more than the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and Wall Drug. It offers a diverse array of activities and sights. There is an abundance of history, going all the way back to the days of the dinosaurs. You’ll see grasslands and forested hills, historical towns, and Native American and explorer history. This history will not always be comfortable, but it isimportant. A visit to the southwest corner of South Dakota takes you back in time, sends your mind into a reverie with the sights, and brings your senses into a heightened state through the experiences of the many landscapes in just this corner of the state. Do yourself a favor. Spend some time here. Take it all in, and leave more fulfilled, knowledgeable, and with a greater understanding than when you came.