Don't Overlook South Dakota's Badlands and Black Hills
Updated: Mar 3
Western South Dakota was our first sightseeing destination, and it certainly exceeded our expectations. The sights and activities in the Badlands and Black Hills shouldn’t be overlooked. Unfortunately, that happens all too often when travelers (like us many years ago) only stop at Mt. Rushmore, before hastily moving on to Yellowstone and the Tetons. This time we spent five nights in the area and still only scratched the surface.
Traveling east to west the Badlands are a breathtaking prelude to the Black Hills. We benefitted from recent rains, in that the grasses were a shimmering green with small, yellow blooms, adding a beautiful contrast to the starkness of the rock formations. Badlands National Park protects almost 250,000 acres of geologic formations and grass prairies along with a variety of wildlife. As Larry says frequently, but accurately, it’s one of those “must sees”.
Custer State Park is less than a two hour drive west of the Badlands National Park and worked, for us, as the perfect central location to explore the Black Hills. It is comprised of 71,000 acres of beautiful landscape and is famous for it’s wildlife. We can attest to the fact that bison roam the area, as we had several up close and personal encounters. We stayed at Game Lodge Campground, which was directly across from the Visitor Center and had great access to all the scenic drives, including the Wildlife Loop, Needles Highway, and Iron Mountain Road to Mt. Rushmore. In addition, it’s less than two hours to Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, and Sturgis.
Our first night we took the Wildlife Loop and had our first bison encounter. We expected to see them off in the distance in the grassland areas, instead they evidently enjoy walking the roadways in the evenings, because a large herd was doing just that and were coming our way. Now we weren’t in the RV. We were in a small rental car, and we were about half the size of the larger bison. There was nowhere to go. Larry kept backing up as they approached, but then traffic filled in behind us. We just knew one of them was going to sideswipe the car, but they finally filed across the road in front of us. It was nerve-wracking, but exciting and certainly memorable.
The next day we drove the Needles Highway, which was why we had the rental car. The Needles Highway cuts through gorgeous landscape filled with rock spires and includes several single lane tunnels. The tunnels are very narrow (not recommended or even possible for most RVs) and the single lane aspect creates quite an interesting traffic issue during busy months. It was a fun, beautiful drive.
We also drove up to the Spearfish Canyon area to check out a couple of stunning waterfalls, and on our way back, stopped by Mt. Rushmore. The waterfalls were just off the road and both were spectacular, each in their own way. Due to construction at Mt. Rushmore we had limited access, but still enjoyed returning after 30+ years. I think, however, Larry’s favorite at Rushmore was the Thomas Jefferson vanilla ice cream we had on the basis of Jennifer’s (our daughter) recommendation. It was quite the highlight!
Lastly, we went to the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs. This was not initially in our plan, but we’re so glad we went. The dig site has been enclosed, and is both massive and impressive. They, so far, have uncovered remnants of over 60 mammoths that fell into what was a sinkhole 140,000 years ago and became trapped. We highly recommend this stop.
As we say in our video (check it out on the Video tab), the Badlands/Black Hills should be a destination, not a pass through. You can easily plan a full vacation around this area. We packed a lot into our visit, but as previously mentioned, we barely scratched the surface.
We didn’t go to either Wind Cave or Jewel Cave; we didn’t make it to the Crazy Horse monument; we didn’t hike, zipline, kayak or go fishing; we didn’t spend any time in Deadwood, Sturgis, or Keystone. We didn’t picnic at Pactola Lake or Sylvan Lake, two of the many lovely, crystal clear mountain lakes in the area. We had a pleasant lunch at Blue Bell Lodge, but there are many small lodges, reminiscent of larger national park lodges, that we didn’t visit. Do you get the idea? Whatever interests you have, we think you’ll find plenty to do and see in the Badlands, Black Hills and at Custer State Park. Our next stop, Devil’s Tower, just across the state line in Wyoming.