Rediscovering the Black Hills and South Dakota

Mt. Rushmore awes at night

When we got married 40 years ago, the only vacation we could afford was driving out to the Black Hills from our home in Western Wisconsin. We lived out of the trunk of our small car, packed with tent, camp stove, supplies and a cooler of food that lasted almost a week.

We finally returned to South Dakota last fall with a little more money in our pockets, but again we traveled by car, this time from our home in North Carolina because we felt more comfortable driving than flying. And the adventure still matched the wonderment we experienced four decades ago.

We stayed in Rapid City for an entire week, using the town as our hub and driving each day to a different part of the Black Hills. That way, we weren’t constantly changing hotels and over-exposing ourselves during COVID.

Yes, parts of the Black Hills qualify as “touristy,” but a trap is in the eye of the beholder. We loved the Wild West feel during this trip and the contrast between achievements by nature and those by humankind. This article features our exploration of sites around Rapid City. I’ll cover the nearby Badlands and North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park in future articles.

mt rushmore south dakota trump
I highly recommend visiting at night for the memorial’s illumination.

Mt. Rushmore inspires again

We’ve previously visited Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, but standing under the four, carved presidents still inspired me as I admired the remarkable achievement of the visionaries and sculptors. We visited during daylight and returned the next evening for the illumination of the mountain. If you only have time for one visit, try late afternoon, eat at the memorial’s cafe and stay until dark. I enjoyed the bison chili.

The memorial facilities have changed and been modernized since our last visit, including multiple parking decks that surprisingly don’t seem obtrusive in the outdoor setting. The visitor center was closed and the evening illumination was not accompanied by the traditional ceremony, due to COVID. However, we walked the Presidential Trail Loop and learned a lot about the four men memorialized and the 400 miners who dynamited and jackhammered the sculptures.

custer state park loop
We drove Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Road and loved these wild burros.
Who cares if the fish are biting with views like this at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park.
Who cares if the fish are biting with views like this at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park.
We took scenic drives and hiked for seven days in the Black Hills
We took scenic drives and hiked for seven days in the Black Hills

Custer State Park kept us busy

Custer State Park is the heart of the Black Hills where we did most of our hiking, including the Cathedral Spires and Little Devil’s Tower trails. Our favorite trek was the Sunday Gulch Trail, which included a loop around Sylvan Lake for a total of about four miles. We loved the early morning lake reflections.

Non-hikers will enjoy the scenic Needles Drive, a twisting road that takes in the park’s famous rock spires and vistas. We visited during the first week of October when foliage neared peak autumn colors. It’s a slow drive that takes about 45-60 minutes. Our favorite drive is the park’s 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road, best toured at dawn or dusk when animals are more active. We encountered pronghorn, mule deer, coyote, prairie dogs, grouse and a huge herd of bison. But we spent most of our time watching the curious wild burros.

The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway includes Roughlock Falls.
The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway includes Roughlock Falls.

Explore Spearfish Canyon

We doubled our pleasure and drove this 19-mile scenic byway twice, also known as Highway 14A. Each time we took short hikes to great locations such as Roughlock Falls and Spearfish Falls. You can also see Bridal Veil Falls from a highway pullout.

Our highlight in Spearfish Canyon was the short hike to the Devil’s Bathtub. Round-trip, we rock-hopped the stream 12 times, nothing too challenging. This intimate location featured great fall colors, a beautiful stream and several cascades through small rocky canyons – a great relaxing spot on a weekday.

Visitors follow a boardwalk around an ancient sinkhole inside the Mammoth Site visitor center.
Visitors follow a boardwalk around an ancient sinkhole inside the Mammoth Site visitor center.

Watch archeologists dig for mammoth bones

It’s difficult not to be awestruck while visiting The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, where an ancient sinkhole entrapped woolly mammoths, short-faced bear, camels and other animals. We watched a ten-minute video before entering the dig site, designated a National Natural Landmark.

Construction workers discovered the site in 1974 when a bulldozer operator unearthed gigantic bones while excavating land for housing development. The rest of the preservation story makes a great American tale.  Visitors walk around the sinkhole and view the mammoth bones exactly where they were discovered, referred to as “in-situ” archeological site.

The Black Hills contain a lot of touristy spots, but we focused on the Great Outdoors.
The Black Hills contain a lot of touristy spots, but we focused on the Great Outdoors.

Walk around Devil’s Tower

Made famous by the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this destination was our furthest drive from Rapid City, about two hours one way. This incredible geologic feature juts up from the prairie and is surrounded by the Black Hills. It’s considered sacred by Northern Plains indigenous people.

We hiked the three-mile Red Beds Trail around Devil’s Tower, but most people take in views from pullouts leading up to the monument or by walking the 1.3-mile Tower Trail. We enjoyed the longer trail but, honestly, the views were better from scenic spots along the road and in picnic areas.

Choose from plenty of touristy stuff, like Reptile World

The Black Hills exude tourism, with plenty of locations that some people might label “traps.” But if you’re traveling with children or grandkids, some of these locations may intrigue your group: Bear Country USA, the Wild West towns of Lead and Deadwood, Old MacDonald’s Farm and plenty of other spots. With an afternoon to kill, we visited Reptile Gardens, which was okay. Many of its activities were suspended because of COVID or the lateness of the season (early October).

We missed out on other interesting destinations near Rapid City. Both Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument were not open for tours, but we did hike at Wind Cave and enjoyed the wildlife sightings. In addition, we didn’t tour the Crazy Horse Memorial mountain sculpture, but several friends really enjoyed the destination and its Native American Educational and Cultural Center. Maybe next time for us.

  • John Gevers
    Posted at 15:53h, 06 February Reply

    I enjoyed this article and its beautiful photographs. It is a reminder of the beauty and variety available in South Dakota. I have good memories from some of these locations, but I apparently missed a lot, too. Well done!

    • admin
      Posted at 21:04h, 06 February Reply

      Thanks so much, John. Glad you got to relive some memories and discover some new places for the future.

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