Black Hills & Badlands2021-07-13T06:44:33+00:00
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With 18 lakes and over 300 miles of rivers and streams that are great for fishing, it’s no wonder that casting a line is incredibly popular with residents and visitors alike.

The roadside attraction Wall Drug Store used to attract travelers with free ice water back in 1931. Now the lure is 5-cent coffee, handmade donuts and quirky photo ops.

The Black Hills boasts one of the largest motorized trail systems in a national forest and has 21 designated motorized trailheads.

Welcome to the Black Hills & Badlands!

Where the Horizontal Plains Rise to the Sky

You come upon the Black Hills, and the nearby Badlands, after traveling for many hours across horizontal plains. First you see a darkness on the far horizon. A mirage? A cloud bank?  Castles in the air? This is a magical moment in your journey — even for frequent visitors who expect the highway phenomenon. It’s wonderful to know that the magic doesn’t evaporate as you arrive. This very real place, and vastly different not just from the surrounding prairies but from every other mountain region in the world.

Mount Rushmore: All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Yes, Mount Rushmore enjoys a lot of hype. And it gets tangled up with occasional political and social fusses. But when you arrive, you soon discover that Rushmore is so much more than all that. The history of how Rushmore was created by rugged workers with humble tools and big dreams is metaphor for American grit. Their story is well told in the exhibits. Even grander is how the sculpted granite faces have, through the decades, blended with the scents and scenery of the pine forest to create a sense of timeless promise. Anything good is possible. That’s what we hear the faces saying on the mountain. Go there to see and learn, and then listen for what they say to you.

Five Holy Places in the Mountains

The Lakota people, who revere the Black Hills, attribute special spiritual significance to five places. They include Black Elk Peak, Bear Butte by Sturgis, Grey Horn Butte (aka Devil’s Tower), Inyan Kara Mountain and Reynolds Prairie, a meadow west of Hill City. Black Elk Peak, formerly Harney Peak, is now named for Nicholas Black Elk, a spiritual visionary who is being considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church. Every year, tens of thousands of people climb the peak, as Black Elk did in 1935, and even the agnostics find it a powerful experience.

Everybody is a Fossil Hunter in South Dakota

Sue, the world’s biggest T-rex fossil, hails from South Dakota and in her time she wasn’t alone. The grasslands, badlands and mountains of western South Dakota are a treasure trove of ancient land and sea creatures. Thousands are buried here, and some of their remains still show up when heavy rain erodes sandy cliffs. On sunny days you can find fossils without getting your hands dirty. Try the Museum of Geology (free admission!) on the School of Mines campus in Rapid City. First-rate private museums also operate in Hill City and Hot Springs, and the latter is also home to the non-profit Mammoth Site, an in-progress excavation of a big sinkhole where many beasts became mired in mud 26,000 years ago. Most museums and rock shops in West River have at least a few fossils and petrified plants.

Heaven, Hell or a Dry Oasis on Earth?

Lt. Col. George Custer visited the Badlands in 1876 and compared them to “a part of Hell with the fires burned out.” Nearly a century later, architect Frank Lloyd Wright toured the rugged landscape and he had a very different perspective: “Here, for once, came complete release from materiality. Communion with what man often calls ‘God’ is inevitable in this place…”. Decide for yourself who was right.  Badlands National Park is hellaciously huge (some 400 square miles), with two visitor centers, a quite civilized loop road and lots of dirt trails and hiking paths.  The Badlands are an amazing experience at high noon on a sunny day, but the eroded spires and pinnacles are truly spectacular as the sun rises and sets, and before and after storms.  Stargazers visit after dark because there is so little light population.

An Appetite for Western South Dakota

We’re not saying you need to dine on a roast rattlesnake to know western South Dakota, but ready your tastebuds for some new experiences.  First of all, if you like beef you’ll be in cuisine heaven because area ranchers grow the world’s best, and local chefs know how to serve it.  Bison meat is also a popular menu item.  Numerous Black Hills restaurants now feature wild game. In Rapid City, a new catering company called Etiquette has Native American foods and offers special “picnic lunch” packages for families or small groups.  If you plan some campfire cooking, shop for fresh local meats, vegetables and sweets at farmers markets.  No one ever gains weight while on vacation, right?

Why Roadside Attractions Survive in S.D.

Across the USA, many of the old-style roadside attractions have disappeared but in western South Dakota they are alive and well – and quite often still run by the same families that started them generations ago.  The most famous include Wall Drug, the 1880 Town, Pioneer Auto Show of Murdo, Reptile Gardens and Bear Country. But many other small businesses entertain travelers with cave tours, gold panning, helicopter rides and other such fun.  There’s a reason why the attractions have endured: they are run by entrepreneurial folks who adapted to the changing time while preserving the old-fashioned hospitality that endeared them to travelers long ago.  There’s a good chance you’ll be greeted by one of the owners if you stop.  That won’t happen in Disneyland.

The Center of the Nation In Several Ways

The geographic center of the USA is just west of the Black Hills (ask for directions when you get to Belle Fourche), but this feels like “the center” in other ways.  You’re likely to see and hear B-1 bombers overhead, because they are based at Ellsworth Air Force Base just east of Rapid City.  This is also the longtime home of the First Peoples, the Native Americans who were here long before white exploration.  Cowboys and sheepherders, both Indian and non-Indian, tend livestock on expansive grasslands surrounding the Hills.  Loggers and miners work in the mountains, and shopkeepers keep the small towns alive.  That mix represents America, and it’s something to appreciate and explore.  Attend a cattle auction at St. Onge or a sheep auction at Newell.  Tour the free museum at the front gate of the Ellsworth air base. Chomp on sweet corn at a county fair. Watch a powwow (they may invite you to dance in the grand entry).  Take in a rodeo.  This is what the natives do in the middle of America.

A Trail for Everybody and Your Horse

Two world-class pedestrian paths traverse north-to-south through the Black Hills. Mickelson Trail follows an old rail line from Deadwood to Edgemont and Centennial Trail cuts cross-country from Bear Butte State Park to Wind Cave near Hot Springs.  However, there are a thousand other shorter trails all through the Black Hills, and the U.S. Forest Service manages 5,200 miles of roads – mostly old mining and logging roads that climb and dip deep into the canyons.  Some trails are only for hiking and biking, while other are open to ATV’s, snowmobiles, horses and even autos so get off the main highway and enter the forest.

Glamping Has Arrived in the Hills

Camping has always been popular in the Black Hills so it’s no surprise that glamping (short for glamorous camping) has taken root.  A meadow of tipis with amazing amenities sits on the western outskirts of Custer, and a safari-like tent community has been built in the hillsides above Keystone, with views of Mount Rushmore.  Other smaller glamping opportunities are sprouting elsewhere, including a primitive cabin by Hill City that once was home to the famous poet Badger Clark.  Glamping is likely to only grow, and why not?  Bears won’t steal your food, after dark the stars shine like candles on an old-timer’s birthday cake and the aromatherapeutic value of pine needles is real.

Can I Actually Climb a Mountain?

The cool thing about the Black Hills is that the mountains are approachable; even the biggest can be climbed by anyone in reasonable health.  Eight peaks stand 7,000 feet or taller, and doing all eight has become a new challenge for local mountaineers.  A Rapid Citian biked and hiked to the eight tops in 15 hours, but we recommend taking your own sweet time.  Good shoes and plenty of water are key.  The “Eight Over Seven” include Terry Peak, Crooks Tower, Crows Nest Peak, Green Mountain, Odakota Mountain, Sylvan Peak and (the tallest) Black Elk Peak.  Another opportunity is Crazy Horse Mountain, which hosts volksmarches to the top of the colossal carving on the first weekend of June and the last weekend of September.  More than 15,000 people have participated in past years, making it the largest organized hike in America.

What to Worry About in the Black Hills?

The Black Hills, western prairies and Badlands are mostly wilderness, so here are a few tips.  Many locals have lived and hiked here all their lives and have never seen a rattlesnake in the wild, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch your step. Seemingly sleepy buffalo will attack so keep a distance unless you can outrun a horse – because a buffalo can.  Mountain lions are growing in numbers, but it’s rare for them to attack a human (if you do see one, don’t run; rise to your full height and look for a big stick).  Grizzly bears are gone, along with wolves.  Wear good hiking shoes so you don’t slip on rocky trails. Carry plenty of water on summer days, even if they begin with cool temps.  And try not to get lost; carry a map and compass and pay attention to your surroundings.

What Makes a Good Mountain Town?

Every small town in the Black Hills is different than the next. Deadwood, the most famous has gone “all in” (that was intended) on gaming, entertainment and history and created something unique.  But every town in the mountains and foothills of South Dakota has its own stories.  To enjoy them, drop by the local museum because they have all collected special artifacts – from Custer’s rifle to rare fossils. Then take a walk.  You don’t know a town until you’re afoot.  Study the amazing stone retaining walls in Lead and Deadwood.  Climb Custer’s Skywalk Trail. Shop Hot Springs’ River Street. Take selfies with your favorite president in downtown Rapid City.  We won’t even suggest that you look for a hometown eatery with local flavor because that’s about all you’ll find.  If you lament the way American cities have homogenized into look-alike stores and suburbs, then you’ll enjoy what you see.

More stories on Black Hills & Badlands…

The Beauty That is Hermosa

Hermosa is Spanish for beauty, a fancy name for a working man’s town of 400 people on the eastern slope of the Black Hills where the most noticeable architectural feature is the county fairgrounds.

The town was named by railroaders who loved the mountain views to the west, as well as grassland vistas to the south, east and north. Those natural charms haven’t faded in the 134 years since the naming, and the town has developed a richness of character that now befits its name.

Prospecting in the Hills

“We never sell the gold,” Kathleen Flanagan, secretary of the Black Hills Prospecting Club, tells me over lunch in Rapid City. “It’s the first question everyone asks.”

This doesn’t make much sense to me. Why else would someone go out panning for gold?

And then the members of the club bring out their favorite nuggets. Almost all of them have brought their best finds to lunch. Most are kept in small vials filled with water or mineral oil.

The Dusty Trail

South Dakota has thousands of miles of gravel roads, but perhaps none so packed with history and nature as the stretch known as the Fort Meade National Backcountry Byway.

The 5 miles of winding gravel known locally as the Old Stone Road begins at Exit 34 along Interstate 90 and ends at the grounds of old Fort Meade, a military post on the outskirts of Sturgis and in the shadow of Bear Butte that remained active from 1878 to 1944. Army engineers had called for a fort on the outskirts of the Hills for 20 years because they feared an Indian war would likely break out in the prairies below Bear Butte. But the government didn’t act until gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874.

Exploring Deer Haven

In South Dakota you can social distance outside. There’s no Times Square out there. And the distances are greater.

Inside may be safer but it can become a prison, a dungeon with a tiny window installed by Apple or Samsung. That window is where you find us, and we are rowdy house guests.

And South Dakota is home to the badlands. The Badlands. There is no place as unconfined.

The Conata Basin is a grassy bay between the main Badlands wall and an intersecting ridgeline that branches south and east. By night, black-footed ferrets, back from near-extinction, hunt prairie dogs.

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