Inspiration juts from a wall of sheer granite, hanging above pine and spruce trees that blanket these rugged hills like a fur cloak. No matter how many times you see it, Mount Rushmore, a uniquely American artwork set amid a sweeping landscape, evokes emotion. The memorial, 23 miles southwest of Rapid City, ranks as one of America's must-see destinations. But don't just stop at the 60-foot-tall faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. An entire vacation's worth of sights -- natural and made -- await in the Black Hills and nearby Badlands.
Enjoy the view at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the movie explaining why these presidents are included and the visitors center that details the process of creating the monument. Memorabilia includes letters from presidents, newspaper clippings, old photographs and descriptions of the conditions workers endured. A hands-on display allows you to "blast" rock off the mountain during the building stages (605/574-2523; nps.gov/moru).
Ruth Ziolkowski (wife of the late Korczak, who in 1948 began carving the image of Crazy Horse astride a horse) and seven of their 10 children continue the work on this massive sculpture, not accepting any government money to do so. A spacious visitors center tells the story of the carving with a short film and celebrates Native American life and culture with exhibits and displays. A large outdoor deck has great views of Crazy Horse Memorial and a restaurant (try the Native American tacos) (605/673-4681; crazyhorsememorial.org).
Crazy Horse Memorial 
Both Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial offer dramatic summer evening events. Mount Rushmore's nightly amphitheater film and talk end with lights outlining the monument (605/574-2523; nps.gov/moru). A laser show at Crazy Horse memorial uses the emerging sculpture of the famous Lakota chief as a backdrop (605/673-4681; crazyhorsememorial.org).
Crazy Horse Memorial 
At 71,000 acres, Custer is one of the nation's largest state parks, known for granite spires called Needles and the 1,500 head of bison that wander freely throughout the park. Seeing them shuffle through a campsite never loses its thrill. Iron Mountain Road into the park from Keystone takes lots of switchbacks, offering absolutely stunning views (605/255-4515; custerstatepark.com).
Custer State Park 
Follow any road piercing 244,000-acre Badlands National Park (about 75 miles east of Rapid City) to enter an almost otherworldly landscape of shale and sandstone. Cut by eons of rain and runoff, the soft rock is a maze of knife-edge pyramids, mammoth tortoiseshell mounds and broad, grass-capped mesas. To learn the secrets of this landscape, join park rangers daily (summers) for prairie and geology walks, fossil talks and other programs originating at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center (605/433-5361; nps.gov/badl).
The second-longest cave in the world features about 150 miles of mapped passageways. Visitors carry lanterns on some tours of Jewel Cave National Monument. Rangers also lead arduous spelunking tours through undeveloped passages (605/673-8300; nps.gov/jeca).
In 1974, a home-builder stumbled upon a prehistoric sinkhole holding intact skeletal remains of 58 young male mammoths. The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs (about 60 miles south of Rapid City) has been a dig-in-progress since, complete with a narrated tour and a museum. Walkways provide up-close views of the animals where they died 26,000 years ago (605/745-6017; mammothsite.com).
The Mammoth Site 
Explore the southern part of South Dakota's Black Hills on guided tours of the 11,000-acre Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, home to more than 500 mustangs and other horses (14 miles south of Hot Springs). Tours are pricey but help support expenses for the nonprofit group. Even non-horsey types should enjoy the panoramic views as well as information about native plants, petroglyphs and ranch life. Check the website for information on different tours available; we enjoyed the three-hour tour with a private guide (and air-conditioned vehicle!) (800/252-6652; wildmustangs.com).
Just south of Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park offers two contrasting experiences -- guided tours of 130 miles of mapped passageways below ground and hiking and camping along backcountry trails through nearly 30,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie (605/745-4600; nps.gov/wica).
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright declared the northern Black Hill's Spearfish Canyon the most magnificent he'd seen; and, yes, he'd been to the Grand Canyon. Forest Service roads lead to picnic spots and miles of exploration in the Black Hills National Forest. For unrivaled scenery, take the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, 20 miles of meandering creek beds, craggy cliffs, plunging waterfalls and serene forest (spearfishcanyon.com/byway.htm).
Spearfish Canyon 
Rising from the prairie just northeast of Sturgis, the summit of this sentinel mountain provides panoramic views of the Black Hills and grasslands. Respect the privacy of Native Americans who frequently gather here -- Bear Butte is a Lakota and Cheyenne holy place. The park features a campground and buffalo herd (605/347-5240; sdgfp.info/parks).
If a party with 400,000 of your closest biker pals sounds like your kind of vacation, come to Sturgis in the Black Hills in August for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. It's a haven for people watching (605/720-0800; sturgismotorcyclerally.com).
In Rapid City, The Journey Museum's exhibits take visitors through the history of the Black Hills area. You'll find dinosaur bones, Sioux clothing and weapons, and photographs of South Dakota explorers, pioneers and prospectors (605/394-6923; journeymuseum.org).
The Journey Museum 
At Ellsworth Air Force Base in Box Elder (just east of Rapid City on I-90), the South Dakota Air and Space Museum's indoor and outdoor displays feature four missiles and 25 historic aircraft, including B-29, B-52 and B-1 bombers as well as fighter jets. Free (605/385-5189; www.ellsworth.af.mil/museum.asp).
Perched on sun-burned cliffs, the town of Wall (population: 821) takes its name from the rugged ramparts that form the north rim of the Badlands (888/852-9255; wall-badlands.com). Stop at the Wall Drug Store, left, a sprawling, kitschy roadside attraction near the Badlands; it has lured motorists since 1931 with souvenirs, clothing, food and 5-cent coffee (605/279-2175; walldrug.com).
Wall Drug 
Just south of the Badlands and about 100 miles southeast of Rapid City, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation hosts the Oglala Nation Powwow and Rodeo every August. In all, South Dakota tribes celebrate nearly 30 of these colorful dancing and social gatherings every year. Visitors are welcome at most (605/455-2685).
Tribal Tourism 
In fall, the slopes of the Black Hills are bathed in the gold of aspen trees. The season also brings mellow weather, smaller crowds and less expensive lodging.
In winter, snowmobiles zip through landscapes so jaw-dropping you'd swear you were in one of the great Western national parks. Terry Peak is the Midwest's highest downhill ski area, but beginners can test their skills on plenty of zippy hills, too. Or just head to the woods with a pair of rented cross-country skis and swoosh through the snow-covered pines.
Terry Peak Ski Area