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South Dakota’s western region delivers on its promise as one of America’s most epic road trip destinations.
Famous for its wild west towns, native American history, rugged landscape, epic bike rally, and most recently Best Picture winner, Nomadland, there’s something in South Dakota for everyone.
Where to stay
When it comes to camping in western South Dakota, it’s all about Custer State Park. With its ruggedly beautiful landscape and abundant wildlife, outdoor enthusiasts love to pitch a tent here. Sylvan Lake campground is a favorite. Note reservations open up a year in advance, so if you have your heart set on camping Custer, book it yesterday!
More a glamping kind of person? Book one of Under Canvas’s luxe accommodations. Their “tents” include posh bedding and in some cases, en suite bathrooms with running water, flush toilets and more. Wake up with a view of Mount Rushmore during the day, starry skies at night, no roughing it required!
Rapid City, aka the City of Presidents, puts everything the Black Hills and its environs has to offer at your fingertips. If a hotel is more your speed, book your stay at Hotel Alex Johnson. This historic lodge dates back to 1928, but its modern day renovation makes it a place that you’ll be happy to return to after a day of exploring.
Pretend you’re the President of the United States at the historic State Game Lodge in Custer National Park. Eisenhower and Coolidge are just two of the guests who’ve spent the night here. In addition to historic rooms, they also offer other accommodations like cabin rentals.
Prefer having your own kitchen, fun common spaces and private bedrooms? Rent a cabin. Executive Lodging is the regions premiere vacation rental company, with accommodations perfect for 2 or 22.
Rimrock Lodge in Spearfish offers basic but lovely cabins with views of Spearfish Canyon. With an onsite shop and cute common area selling snacks, beer, wine and refreshments, it strikes the perfect balance of hotel and AirBnB.
What to eat
The wild west wasn’t won with white tablecloths and fancy dishes you can’t pronounce. It’s much the same here today—quite good at serving up casual food without pretense. One of the most pervasive menu items in the region? Buffalo burger. Made with bison, these super-lean burgers are delicious. Try one at Black Hills Burger and Bun in Custer.
Another thing South Dakotans do well? Beer. There are lots of local breweries to check out, including Miner Brewing Co., known for its expansive taps list that includes beers, mead and cider. They serve sandwiches and pizzas, too. If you’re in Rapid City, check out the Independent Ale House, a beer bar featuring many local brews, as well as interesting microbrews from around the country. Definitely something for everyone—as their motto says, there’s “no crap on tap.”
It may come as a surprise, but you’ll also find lovely wineries in the area. Launched by Matthew and Choi Jackson, a winemaker and sommelier respectively, Belle Joli creates lovely wine and sparkling wine made with grapes grown in the Black Hills’ rich soil. Visit their Sparkling Room in Sturgis, complete with an outdoor patio that overlooks their five-acre vineyard; or visit their tasting room in downtown Deadwood.
What to do
Drive the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway
This 39-mile stretch of road would take about an hour to traverse without stopping. But trust me: you’re going to want to stop and soak up the other-worldly views. The Badlands feel part mission to Mars, part desert, and all awe-inspiring. There are 16 designated scenic overlooks, as well as hikes along the way. Queue up the Springsteen, because the only way this drive gets better is with the perfect soundtrack.
Another great scenic drive? The Needles Highway, a 14-mile road threading through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. It’s in Custer State Park, near Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse area.
If you’re driving west on the route, you’ll end up in Wall, South Dakota, home of the arguably the most epic roadside attraction in the country. Sip on free ice water, sink your teeth into an old fashioned doughnut, and get a photo on the giant jackelope. This place is the kind of tourist cheese you can’t help but love.
Step back in time in Deadwood
The Gold Rush of 1876 led miners en masse to the northern Black Hills. A gulch full of dead trees and a creek full of gold became the site for Deadwood. Soon after, the town sprung up and with the promise of fortune came gold seekers, outlaws, gamblers and gunslingers. Channel your inner Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane in the place that almost went the way of the ghost town. What saved it? Limited-wage gambling was legalized 1989, and Deadwood was reborn. Fitting for a wild west town!
History buffs will love the Days of 76 Museum. Opened in 2013, you’ll find carriages, firearms, American Indian artifacts.
For those of you looking for a real-ish wild west experience, visit Main Street. During the summer months, actors perform free daily shows and shootouts at various locations on Main Street. Find the full schedule and locations here.
If you’re not claustrophobic, you’ll love visiting the Broken Boot Gold Mine. This underground mine tour goes deep underground into the century-old shafts of the Broken Boot. Walk in the footsteps of thousands of miners who sought their fortunes underground, by way of explosions and candlelight. You can also try your hand at panning for gold.
Fresh Air Adventures
There’s something about South Dakota that just makes you want to saddle up. High Country Rides brings you into the Black Hills National Forest on horseback. Riders must be six years old, and all levels are welcome.
There are not too many places where the buffalo (technically, bison) still roam. This makes Custer State Park extra special. Go off road and get up close and personal with this majestic animal, as well as pronghorn antelope and elk, on a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour. You’ll gain access to parts of the park typically off limits, as well as an expert guide who will answer any and every question.
Get your belay on with Sylvan Rocks, the Black Hills’ premier rock climbing guide service. These folks offer climbing tours at Custer State Park/the Needles, the Mount Rushmore Climbing Area, and Devils Tower National Monument.
Bike the Mickelson Trail
For over 20 years, bikers (not the Sturgis kind) have flocked to the Black Hills to journey down the George S. Mickelson Trail. The 109-mile trail’s gentle slopes allow cyclists of all ages to pedal over more than 100 converted railroad bridges and 4 rock tunnels. There are 15 trailheads, all of which offer parking, self-sale trail pass stations, vault toilets, and tables. You can bring your own bike of course, but if you prefer to borrow, DeadWheels Bike Rentals’ fleet of Specialized bikes rent by the hour, day or week. Bonus: they’re located at the trail head and can arrange for shuttles to pick you up down the line.
Though much of the history here focuses on Native Americans, and the Wild West, the Motion Limited Museum is all about a different kind of history. Check out their wide collection of classic cars, as well as their lot of restored and project cars that are up for sale. Pro tip: Tell your kids it’s Radiator Springs and they’ll have a ball looking around.
No explanation needed!
Under construction since 1948, this homage to Crazy Horse remains one of the world’s biggest works in progress, literally. Born around 1840, Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota member, ranks among the most notable and iconic of Native American warriors. In addition to the giant mountain carving, you’ll also find the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational & Cultural Center. During the summer, there’s a nightly laser light show at the monument.
Below the surface
Two of western South Dakota’s most beautiful natural wonders are subterranean. Check out Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, two of the longest cave systems in the world, coming in at roughly 140 miles and 170 miles, respectively. If you have to choose to visit only one, Jewel Cave boasts formations that look exactly like bacon. That’s enough to sway me!
Have you been to western South Dakota? What are your favorite spots? Share in the comments!
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Photos via Travel South Dakota