South Dakota is a trove of national and state parks, historic sites and trails, and maybe the most popular memorial in the entire United States.
If you’re planning a road trip this summer, put the Mount Rushmore State on your radar. Here are some of the great spots to stop at during your trip.
First off, let’s find you a good basecamp for your trip. We stayed in Rapid City, which is on the west end of the state, just about 40 miles from the Wyoming border. Most of the South Dakota goodies are within a very reasonable driving distance from Rapid City, which makes it a good choice.
The city itself is very neat and you can spend a day or more exploring it. The main street in downtown Rapid City (conveniently named Main Street) has more than enough options for dining, coffee, shopping and pubs.
There is also the Main Street Square which is community gathering place that has a stage for weekly outdoor concerts, a big plush lawn to play ball or Frisbee, and a splash pad for kids. That was a welcome relief during the hot summer day we visited.
For more information on Rapid City, check out their website at www.visitrapidcity.com
Now that you’re settled in, let’s think of what to do when you’re there. At the top of your list has to be Mount Rushmore. This world famous memorial is located in Keystone which is just southwest of Rapid City. If you’ve never seen it in person, you’ve seen it either on TV or in a book. Seeing it in person gives you a real patriotic rush.
Getting into the memorial is free, this was a stipulation by the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, but they do charge you to park there. It’s reasonable and is good for a full calendar year. Just remember where you put your receipt.
When getting into the memorial, you’ll walk through the Avenue of the Flags which has each state flag flying proud and high. With Mount Rushmore in the background, you can get a great picture here.
Mount Rushmore also offers a Junior Ranger program for the kids. We took some time to fill out the workbook and learned a great deal about the memorial and what it took to build in the process.
For more information on Mount Rushmore, visit www.nps.gov/moru/index.htm
Black Hills National Forest
Mount Rushmore is located in the Black Hills National Forest. The Black Hills is not only home to Mount Rushmore, but also to Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, Needles Highway and Wind Cave National Park.
It is beautiful driving through the Black Hills. There are several tunnels that go through the mountainside that are square cutouts. You have to be very certain of your car’s width because there is a chance you could get stuck.
Our favorite tunnel was the one you drive through and as you get through it you look out and see Mount Rushmore. It is an amazing site.
To get more information on the Black Hills National Forest, visit www.fs.usda.gov/blackhills
Custer State Park
Some say Custer State Park should qualify as a National Park because of its beauty and the amazing wildlife that lives in the park. We didn’t have much luck seeing buffalo in the park, but I’ve talked to others that have seen large herds in the park.
My favorite part of our visit to Custer State Park were the scenic drives. The roads that wind through the park offer breathtaking views. Plus we were able to stop to see some prairie dogs up close and personal right off of the side of the road.
For more information on the Custer State Park, visit gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/custer.
Our favorite drive was on Needles Highway. This drive will take you up toward Sylvan’s Lake, which is a great stopping point to swim when the weather is right. It winds through crazy rock formations that look like needles pointing to the sky. There are a few pull-outs where you can park your car and get a better look on foot.
The crazy part is when you get to the top of Needles Highway and you drive through this opening that you think for sure you will get stuck in. And then you finally make it through and there is a crowd of people sitting there watching to make sure you made it. Plus, you’ll enjoy some spectacular views.
To get more information on the Needles Highway, click here.
Wind Cave National Park
To the south of Custer State Park is Wind Cave National Park. This cave system is one of the longest underground systems in the world. Unfortunately we weren’t able to visit it during our time there, but it is on our list when we head that way again.
For more information on Wind Cave National Park, visit http://www.nps.gov/wica.
Badlands National Park
When you drive into the Badlands you feel like you are entering a whole different world. The formations and structures are so unusual and they go on for miles and miles.
There is a fun hill that you can climb right next to the visitor center and multiple places to stop while you are driving through. At these stops you can get out to do some rock scrambling to take in amazing views.
Be careful when you visit because it can get HOT. That’s right not just hot, but HOT. It must have to do with the ground and the structures because heat just radiates off of it. We did visit during a hot day and we were still able to enjoy the park. But we could only endure it in short spurts since we needed to get into the air conditioning and drink some water since we got so hot so quickly.
To get more information on the Badlands, visit www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm.
Bear Country USA
We almost didn’t visit Bear Country, but we were so glad we did. You drive in, pay from your car, they tell you to lock your door and keep your windows up, and then you head in to Bear Country.
There is a single road that you drive on that takes you through a variety of animal habitats where you’ll see wolves, reindeer, buffalo, cougars and bears. There are tons of bears and they are right next to your car and may even walk in front of it.
The wildlife is obviously use to the cars since they pretty much ignore you and walk wherever they want. So you have to drive careful and be on the look out. It was really cool to see all of the animals so close up.
Once you are done with the drive you head over the baby animal area where you see bear cubs, fox cubs, and all sorts of other baby animals. They are so cute and it is really neat to see them when they are so little and playful with each other.
For more information on Bear Country USA, visit www.bearcountryusa.com.
South Dakota has so much to offer you could spend a month roadtripping through the state and still not see everything! The Travel South Dakota website describes the Great 8 tourist attractions in South Dakota. We were able to visit four of them and have added the other four to our list for the next time we are in South Dakota.
The four we missed are:
- Crazy Horse Memorial — crazyhorsememorial.org
- Historic Deadwood — www.deadwood.com
- Jewel Cave National Monument — www.nps.gov/jeca
- Missouri River — sdmissouririver.com
To learn more about South Dakota and everything it has to offer, an visit Travel South Dakota at www.travelsouthdakota.com.