Road Trip to South Dakota and South Dakota National Parks

categories: USA Travel

On a quest to visit my 50th state I did a large road trip to South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana in a loop that included 7 national parks, and 2 great state parks. This article will talk about the South Dakota part of that trip including 5 South Dakota national parks, one great state park, some old west history, and great scenery.

For the rest of the trip read Road Trip to North Dakota – Theodore Roosevelt NP, Medora Musical and Enchanted Highway.

Mount Rushmore South Dakota

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Rapid City South Dakota

Rapid City

We started our trip by flying into Rapid City, South Dakota which is the nearest airport to Mount Rushmore and the badlands of South Dakota. Rapid City is the 2nd largest city in South Dakota but still has only about 75,000 people. The city has a lovely old downtown with tree-lined brick buildings. There are statues of presidents on numerous street corners in this city that bills itself as both the “Gateway to the Black Hills” and the “City of Presidents”.

We tried a couple of the restaurants downtown, one when we arrived and one when we left, and enjoyed them both. Tally’s was recommended by locals and is worth a visit and Que Pas had quite good Mexican food.

Spearfish

The first stop on our trip was the old west town of Deadwood. We actually stayed in Spearfish which is close to Deadwood. It gets a lot fewer tourists so hotels were half the price of Deadwood. We were staying 2 nights at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Spearfish which was, honestly, just OK.

We went into downtown Spearfish for dinner. The Spearfish downtown is only a couple of blocks long but has a couple of good restaurants. We ate at both the RedWater Kitchen Restaurant and the Stadium Sports Grill and had a good experience at both places. There are not a lot of things to do in Spearfish, but you can take the scenic Spearfish Canyon to Deadwood.



Deadwood, South Dakota

Deadwood

Deadwood was a gold mining town that peaked in the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1876. The town attracted a number of famous characters from the old west including Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok.

Mickelson Trail - Deadwood, South Dakota

After a quick stop at the Welcome Center, we took a walk out of town on the Mickelson Trail. The Mickelson Trail is a 109-mile long trail on the path of the old railroad. We only walked a couple of miles on this excellent biking/hiking trail.

Wild Bill Hickock's grave Deadwood, South Dakota

Some of the city’s most famous residents like Wild Bill Hickok didn’t make it out of town alive. Hickock was shot in the middle of a poker game at one of the local saloons. Both he and Calamity Jane are buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery which is on a hill overlooking the small town.

Eagle Bar

Back in town, we walked a bit and ate lunch at the colorful Eagle Bar, with sirloin burgers, grilled cheese, various burgers, and a chicken sandwich. The food was great.

Calamity Jane - Deadwood, South Dakota

You can still encounter some of the more famous residents of Deadwood in town as there are a number of live-action reenactments that take place daily in the warmer months. We ran into Calamity Jane when we went to see The Strange Tale of David Lunt played out in the street in front of one of the saloons. You can get a schedule of the various reenactments at the Welcome Center.

Wild Bill Hickock - Deadwood, South Dakota

At Saloon #10 Wild Bill Hickok is shot again 4 times a day. At the Saloon, we sat at a table and had soft drinks while we waited. They did a good intro story with Wild Bill talking about his life, then the re-enactment of the shooting.

Roughneck Falls

After that, we drove to see Roughneck Falls, which had a really nice walk to a beautiful view of the falls. They were lovely but the person who called them “breathtaking” on the Spearfish tourism board site does need to get out more. There are truely breathtaking sites in the Black Hills.

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Mount Rushmore is part of the national parks system as a national memorial. You undoubtedly know what it looks like already with 4 of our greatest presidents carved into the mountain: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson. A Mount Rushmore vacation has been on my todo list for years.

We arrived just in time for the 10 am studio tour, where we learned about the process involved in creating the monument. It took 14 years from 1927-1941 and ended up being 85% funded by the federal government, at a total cost of $1 million, instead of the originally estimated $500k, which was supposed to be split 50/50 between private donations and government funding.

We learned that originally Jefferson was supposed to be on the far left, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, but after they started on him, a big crack appeared so they had to blow him off the mountain and start again to the other side of Washington.

90% of the rock that was removed to carve the monument was removed with dynamite, with much of the rest being done with jackhammers. For some time the power at the site had real troubles on Monday mornings… because all the women in nearby Keystone would do laundry on Monday.

Washington - Mount Rushmore

We also learned that the original plans were for the statue to be taller than just the heads. If you look, you can see that the shoulders of Washington were started. But the work took longer and was more costly so the plans were changed. The monument is considered a finished work, so no, no future president will be carved into the mountain.

We walked up the many steps and paths to see multiple views of the sculpture, which was very cool. We finished around 11:30 and got some snacks at the concessions to tide us over until lunch. They have an extensive cafeteria in addition to a gift shop.

Two of our group went into the gift shop, where the last living worker (Don “Nick” Clifford) who had worked on the monument from 1938-1941 was signing books. They bought one and we chatted briefly with him and his wife. He was 17 when he was hired, which would make him about 98 when we met him. He was the last surviving worker for 12 years but in between our visit and the publishing of this post we heard that he has died.

We have a National Park annual pass but you cannot use it to pay for the parking at Mount Rushmore which was $10.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Image by RJA1988 from Pixabay

Crazy Horse Monument

If you want to see a project like Mount Rushmore being carved you can visit the nearby Crazy Horse Monument which has been under construction since 1948. Honestly, no one we talked to recommended it so we skipped it.

It costs $12 per person, $30 per carload with three or more people.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park compares favorably with parks in the national park system. It is a large park with herds of bison, a beautiful alpine lake, and the stunning Needles Highway.

Sylvan Lake - Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake

From Mount Rushmore, we drove to Sylvan Lake. Sylvan Lake is a reservoir with a very small dam at a break a naturally occurring ring of granite rocks. If it looks familiar you might recognize it from a scene in National Treasure: Book of Secrets movie with Nicolas Cage. They were looking in these rocks for a secret entrance to Cibola the city of gold.

We walked around the lake on a beautiful one-mile hike, with a few side excursions. There is a small cafe with pizza and some other snacks and a small store, but I would not eat here. Save your appetite for the Blue Bell Lodge.

Blue Bell Lodge - Custer State Park

Blue Bell Lodge

We drove to Blue Bell Lodge for the famous Buffalo stew/chili/quesadillas – all were delicious. They were so good that we came back again the second day we were in the park when some of our group enjoyed the pecan-crusted walleye.

Bison - Custer State Park

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop

We drove the 18-mile Custer State Park wildlife loop in hopes of seeing bison, elk, pronghorn, and prairie dogs. If you are not familiar with pronghorn, they are the fastest animal in North America with a top speed of 55 mph. We succeeded in seeing all but elk. We just saw a few prairie dogs compared to Theodore Roosevelt Park in North Dakota, and we saw scattered groups of bison.

Prairie Dogs - Custer State Park

Pronhorn - Custer State Park

Then as we were almost done with the loop, we saw a very large herd of bison crossing the road in front of us. They kept things clogged for quite a while until a brave driver began inching forward through the roadblock and we and several other cars followed. I had to weave through all the animals to continue on the road. Gradually the animals got out of the way and we could get through. One does not want to use your horn to get a one-ton animal with actual horns to move.

We just missed the big event in the park which is the annual Bison roundup which happens every September. That’s when cowboys and cowgirls round-up all 1300 or so of the Custer State Park herd.

Visitor Center

Our second day in the park we had a more relaxing day planned. We headed back to Custer State Park to go to the Visitor Center to learn more about the Park. There was a film starting at 10:30, so we watched that. It was narrated by Kevin Costner and was a good overview. We also learned that the terms bison and buffalo are interchangeable. The correct name is Bison Bison, and the word buffalo came from the French “le boeuf” or beef (but it’s not beef).

Donkeys - Custer State Park

We asked where to find wildlife in hopes of seeing elk or donkeys. The elk wouldn’t be around during the day, but we saw more bison and we did see the donkeys at the south point.

Custer State Park - Needles Highway

Needles Highway

The other great drive in Custer State Park is the Needles highway which winds in and out through towering granite rock “needles”. Whether you love to drive or just love scenery, I would highly recommend this meandering road.

Purple Pie Place - Custer State Park

Custer

We headed through the park to the West end and sought lunch in Custer. We ate at Sage Creek Grille, which was excellent. We had sandwiches and salads. We came back to Custer later in the day for pie and ice cream from the Purple Pie Place.

Wind Caves National Park

Wind Caves National Park

From Custer, we drove to Wind Caves National Park. Unfortunately, as we already knew, the elevator was out of service, and we wouldn’t be able to enter the cave, but we did watch the film and joined Ranger Nick on a cave entrance talk where we learned about how the cave was discovered around the turn of the century and how it was mapped by a 16-year-old before it became a National Park in 1903. We had a chance to look into the ‘hole’ that was the original opening found at the cave and could feel the air moving out.

We took two above-ground hikes at Wind Caves, the Cold Brook Canyon Trail, which was one mile out and back to a stream, past lots of poison ivy. We saw prairie dogs, and it was fun to walk through the prairie dog town instead of just seeing it from the car.

Rankin Ridge - Wind Caves National Park

We also took a hike to Rankin Ridge fire lookout tower, which ended up being steeper than we expected. The view was beautiful.

Jewel Cave, SD

Jewel Cave National Monument

With our bad timing, the elevator at nearby Jewel Cave National Monument was also broken. It should reopen in May of 2020. So we missed both of the caves in the Black Hills.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

The next day, we headed east from Rapid City towards Badlands National Park we made a stop at one of the 3 segments of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The visitor center of the park is only about an hour from Rapid City, just north of Interstate 94 and the eastern end of Badlands National Park.

We walked through the visitor’s center and watched the film, which was a sobering reminder of the cold war and nuclear proliferation. The visitor’s center is definitely worth a stop but it takes more planning and time if you want to visit the launch facilities or an actual missile silo.

  • You can take a ranger-guided tour of Delta-01. Delta-01 has two parts: the living quarters and the underground Launch Control Center. Tours are by reservation only and are limited to 6 people per tour. Delta-01 is located at I-90 exit 127.
  • You can take a self-guided tour of Delta-09 missile silo. Delta-09 is located at I-90 Exit 116.

We completely forgot that we’d thought about stopping at Delta-09 until it was past 3:30, and they’d closed at 3. We also missed going to the South Dakota Air and Space Museum near Rapid City which closed at 4:30. In general, we did Minuteman, Badlands, and Wall Drug in one day and could easily have stretched it to two.

To learn more about the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site read Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – A Flashback to the Cold War

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park

From there we entered Badlands National Park at the eastern end and drove back to the west along the park loop road. We saw some different formations than we’d seen in North Dakota. We went to the Ben Reifel Visitors Center and learned that the layer of ash that makes up the badlands was from volcanoes that erupted 24 million years ago in Nevada and Utah, in what is now Great Basin National Park (vaguely referred to as volcanoes in the west in the presentations). The volcanic ash could be up to 30 feet deep in the Badlands.

Notch Trail - Badlands National Park

We stopped at a number of the scenic overlooks and a couple of the Badlands National Park trails. The Notch Trail had some interesting more jagged structures. It looked like you were on the surface of Mars… except with more tourists.

Yellow Mounds - Badlands National Park

The hills near the Yellow Mounds overlook started to take on more red and yellow colors.

Wall Drug

Wall Drug

We finished up stopping at a few lookouts along the loop drive and exited at the Pinnacles entrance to head to Wall Drug.

Wall Drug started as a simple Drug Store in Wall South Dakota. They started offering free ice water to travelers and grew that simple offer into a tourist destination all its own.

The first order of business in Wall was to find food, so we ate at the Wall Drug cafe. The cafe is fine but not great. We wandered and shopped a bit, discovering that Wall Drug is a complex of many small stores selling books, jewelry, cowboy gear, pottery, and more.

Podcast

Learn more about visiting the Black Hills area of western South Dakota by listening to Travel to the Black Hills of South Dakota – Amateur Traveler Episode 252.

South Dakota / Black Hills Attractions Map

Conclusion

We took a week to visit South Dakota as well as two nights in North Dakota with stops at Devil’s Tower National Monument and Medicine Rocks State Park in Montana. We loved everything we saw but you could easily do a week-long trip in just this area of western South Dakota.

See all my South Dakota photographs

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by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast, and a co-host for This Week in Travel podcast.

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