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.