Wonders of The Black Hills and Badlands
The western reaches of South Dakota combine rolling prairie, jagged Badlands spires and the soaring, pine-draped Black Hills in a magnificent, ever-changing landscape. Once, the vast region was the domain of the Sioux nation, and more than 30,000 members of the tribe still call the area home.
This 270-mile route starts in Badlands National Park, just off I-90 about 50 miles east of Rapid City, which is the area's largest community and the gateway to this region. You travel along back roads through the preserve's lunarlike landscape. Farther west, byways pierce hills that appear black from a distance. The combination of the deep shadows and pine forests that blend in the mountains' high reaches gave the Black Hills their name.
In the 1870s, the cry of "Gold!" brought would-be prospectors stampeding to the hills. They established towns such as Deadwood and Lead, which retain the character of those wild days. Today, speculators still hope to hit it big in Deadwood's casinos. Visitors also can view Victorian-style homes perched in the hillsides, or descend into a shaft to see how miners extracted the precious metal.
You'll discover other manmade wonders that draw visitors from around the world: the colossal presidential faces at Mount Rushmore, as well as Crazy Horse monument, still a work in progress after 50 years. In Custer State Park, visitors settle into lodges and cabins before they hike mountain trails or try their luck fishing in tranquil Sylvan Lake.
The true riches of the Black Hills and Badlands region still belong to Mother Nature: meeting a big buffalo face to face, soaking in the soothing mineral waters at the town of Hot Springs or stopping beside a glistening falls in Spearfish Canyon. But they're all yours to share.
Badlands National Park
As you head west on I-90, the rolling grasslands of the high prairie abruptly give way to one of the eeriest landscapes in North America. You almost think you're on another planet when you enter this vast, 244,000-acre preserve of knifelike spires and mammoth tortoiseshell-shaped mounds (60 miles east of Rapid City). Steep canyons, cut by eons of rain and runoff, open at the base of broad, grass-capped mesas.
From I-90, take exit 131 and follow State-240 to the park's Ben Reifel Visitors Center at Cedar Pass. You can pick up a guide to help you explore 64,000 acres of designated wilderness. Several roads wind through the park (some are primitive and may be difficult to travel after heavy rains; ask in advance about driving conditions). You'll spot antelopes and buffalo, as well as prairie dog towns, along the way.
From Cedar Pass, drive 30 miles northwest on State-240, which takes you through the heart of the Badlands.
Perched on sun-burned cliffs, the town takes its name from the rugged ramparts that form the north rim of the Badlands. Stop at the world-famous Wall Drug Store, a block of shops, galleries and eateries.
Drive 45 miles west on I-90. For a more scenic drive, backtrack to Cedar Pass and drive about 50 miles on State-44.
A party of down-on-their-luck miners founded this laid-back city in 1876, hoping to get rich furnishing supplies to fortune hunters during the Black Hills gold rush. Nestled in a green valley along Rapid Creek, the community serves as a gateway to the wild hills just to the west. Careful restoration has preserved downtown buildings, including many Italianate-style facades that date to those early years. Shops specializing in Lakota Sioux jewelry, beadwork, paintings and weavings abound. Even the brass firefighters' pole still is in place at the Firehouse Brewing Company, a casual restaurant and brewpub in a vintage three-story brick building, where firefighters once waited for calls.
Drive 17 miles west on State-44, known as Rimrock Highway, lined with craggy cliffs. Go north 8 miles on US-385 and turn east on County-208. Take this well-maintained scenic gravel road 8 miles to Nemo Road, which twists through deep forests. Go northwest 15 miles on Nemo Road and reconnect with US-385. Drive north 13 miles to US-85 and go 2 miles north.
If you want to skip this scenic loop, you can drive 24 miles north from State-44 on US-385 and 2 miles north on US-85 to reach your next destination in less time.
Deadwood and neighboring Lead (pronounced LEED) 4 miles to the west boomed during the gold-mining 1880s. Gam-bling was a big attraction then.
Deadwood's most famous murder occurred in 1876, when Wild Bill" Hickok was gunned down at a card table in Saloon No. 10. Today, a granite bust of Wild Bill dominates a downtown square, and you can play blackjack in Saloon No. 10. Many buildings surviving from the mining era have been restored in this community at the base of a mountain. Most of the business/entertainment district extends for five blocks along Main Street, a broad brick lane lined with globed street lamps. In every building, whether it's a restaurant or shop, slot machines tease with blinking lights.
Backtrack 2 miles south on US-85 and continue west 2 miles.
Vintage Victorian mansions cling to steep hillsides in this mile-high community. The Homestake Gold Mine still operates as the largest in the nation. Though you can't descend into the tunnels, 1-hour tours take visitors to the vast open-pit mine. You also can view the milling works, which crushes the ore and treats it to extract the precious metal. Then, shop along the narrow main street.
Continue 8 miles west on US-85. Turn north on US-14A.
This spectacular passage along Spearfish Creek winds through a gorge for 19 miles. Scenes from the movie Dances With Wolves were filmed here. Cliffs soar above the water, and aspens and birches stand shoulder to shoulder with deep-green pines. You'll see glistening waterfalls tumbling over the cliffs. Along the way, stop at Latchstring Village, where you can spend the night in comfort at Spearfish Canyon Resort or order a tasty trout dinner at The Latchstring Restaurant across the road.
At the north end of US-14A, turn west on Interstate-90 and drive 2 miles.
A majestic mountain greets you at the end of almost any street in this easygoing town. Victorian homes line the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown business district. Stores that specialize in Black Hills gold and silver, plus Lakota crafts, occupy vintage sandstone buildings.
Drive 6 miles east on I-90 and 9 miles south on US-85. Go about 35 miles south on US-385, passing over huge Pactola Reservoir, dotted with boats. At US-16, turn south and drive 6 miles. Take US-16A for 4 miles into the town of Keystone and go 2 miles west on State-244.
No matter how often you've seen photographs of the presidential faces carved into a mountain, your first glimpse of Mount Rushmore inspires awe. Millions of visitors gaze each year at the visages of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. A new visitors center features 21 exhibits, including artifacts and photo-graphs documenting Mount Rushmore's construction. View a film about the monument's history and stroll the Presidential Trail, a half-mile loop that winds to the base of the monument.
Drive 8 miles west on State-244. You'll pass Harney Peak, the highest point (7,242 feet above sea level) between the Rockies and the Alps. Go about a quarter mile south on US-385. You can continue 6 miles south on US-385 to view the 88-foot-tall face of Sioux warrior Crazy Horse carved into a mountain. Five miles north of the resort town of Custer, Crazy Horse has been a work in progress for more than 50 years. Backtrack north on US-385 from the memorial and drive 6 miles south on State-87.
Custer State Park
One of the nation's largest publicly owned buffalo herds roams this massive enclave, where you can stay at one of four state park lodges and dine on excellent food. You'll discover fishing, hiking, wildlife watching, horseback riding and other outdoor activities.
Harney Peak looms above quiet Sylvan Lake as you enter the park on State-87. From the 1930s-era Sylvan Lake Lodge resort, the road, which is known as Needles Highway, travels 14 miles into the heart of the park through a moonscape of rock formations. Granite spires rise beside the narrow blacktop. One-lane tunnels plunge through rock.
Drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop, which passes over rolling pine hills and through open prairie. You may spot bison, deer, prairie dogs and wild burros, especially during the early-morning and late-evening hours.
At the south edge of the park, continue for 5 miles on State-87, until it merges with US-385. Go 2 miles south on US-385.
Wind Cave National Park
You can hike through pine forests and across windswept grasslands in this 28,300-acre preserve. But the real show is below ground, where rangers lead trips through some of the 82 miles of charted passageways in the big cave.
Continue 11 miles south on US-385.
Long ago, the Sioux and Cheyennes believed in the curative powers of the warm mineral springs that put this town on the map. The mountain community, with sandstone buildings, climbs the valley walls along both sides of the Fall River.
Even before human beings arrived here, the waters were a favorite of woolly mammoths. A quarter century of digs has uncovered remains of dozens of these prehistoric ancestors of elephants, which became trapped in the springs. At The Mammoth Site, you can view the massive bones and tusks left right in the spots where they were unearthed. Tour guides explain their history.
The springs still flow through the town. Vacationers can soothe their muscles at Evans Plunge, a huge water park and indoor pool that draws from the mineral springs. Soaking in the relaxing waters, you can't help pondering the wonders of this region that even today seems barely tamed.