Striking Gold: A Fall Trip to South Dakota's Black Hills
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Fall's finest in the Black Hills
It's only after school starts and summer's minivan caravan ends that South Dakota's Black Hills roll out some of their finest weeks. Days dawn frosty, then warm into a palette of sharp blue skies and patches of glowing aspens and cottonwoods sprinkled among prairies and pine forests.
Click ahead for a look at some of our top fall stops in the Black Hills, including the views from the Needles Highway in Custer State Park (pictured).
Custer State Park's annual Buffalo Roundup (September 27 in 2013) draws thousands of visitors eager to experience the Wild West scene. The park's bison herd, 1,300 strong, cascades over the hills toward corrals. As cowboy whips tear at the clear autumn air, a rumbling that's equal parts sound and seismic event rolls up through the shoes of everyone straining for a view at the wooden fence.
After cowboys doctor the bison and sort a few out for sale, the gates swing open, releasing the herd back into Custer's 71,000 acres. But even with fall's star event over, the Black Hills leave plenty to see.
The 109-mile Mickelson Trail runs the length of the Hills, putting epic views in reach for casual bikers. The crushed-stone path follows old railbeds; trestle bridges, rock tunnels and gentle grades are generously spread between 15 trailheads, so that even as you're savoring one of the prettiest rides of your life, you're never far from lunch and a rest in towns like Custer, Hill City, Lead and Deadwood.
Spearfish Canyon draws sightseers to the Hills' northern edge, where limestone walls rise like hanging gardens decorated with aspens, birches, oaks and cottonwoods. It's enough to charm even those who have seen their share of grandeur, including John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt and Frank Lloyd Wright.
For unrivaled scenery, take the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, 20 miles of meandering creek beds, craggy cliffs, plunging waterfalls and serene forest. At the bottom of the canyon, Spearfish Creek pours over and around the rocks, gurgling at the feet of fishermen placing trout flies in quiet eddies with a delicate touch transmitted through 20 yards of monofilament line.
This classic tourist train whistles and chugs between Hill City and Keystone for a rare chance to ride behind a vintage steam engine. The tracks thread up Tin Mill Hill, through pines and rocks, past a distant view of Harney Peak and past free-roaming cattle and the occasional deer and antelope. Seasonal excursions on the 1880 Train include a Wine Express and Oktoberfest Express.
Custer State Park
Wildlife and scenic drives fill Custer State Park's 71,000 acres; don't miss the narrow, 14-mile Needles Highway that winds around and through the park's magnificent granite spires. The rustic State Game Lodge (pictured) has remodeled its dining room, offering a scenic spot for meals.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Sure, you've seen it in a million pictures. But Mount Rushmore is still inspiring when you actually visit. Enjoy the view, the movie explaining why these presidents are included and the visitors center that details the process of creating the monument. Mount Rushmore's evening lighting ceremony runs daily until September 30, then the sculpture is lit for one hour each fall evening.
Crazy Horse Memorial
The 63-year-old-and-counting project aims to be the world's largest sculpture. 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 the massive Crazy Horse Memorial, 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.
Jewel Cave National Monument
The second-longest cave in the world wows with sparkly crystals and 154 miles of passages. A Discovery Tour and longer Scenic Tour are offered year-round at Jewel Cave National Monument (lantern tours and spelunking tours are also available in summer).
Stops and shops for local color
Jewels of the West Locally made jewelry and home accessories bridge the gap between artsy and Western at this Hill City shop. jewelofthewest.com
Prairie Edge In Rapid City, Smithsonian-worthy Lakota artistry fills this classy gallery and shop. prairieedge.com
Prairie Berry Winery In Hill City, settle in at a patio table with upscale nibbles and a glass of sassy-sweet rhubarb-raspberry wine. prairieberry.com
The Journey Museum High-tech displays in Rapid City explore South Dakota history through the lens of native tribes, cowboys and archeologists. journeymuseum.org
Pictured: Iron Star statue outside the shop Jewels of the West.
Where to eat
Firehouse Brewery (pictured) Pair your microbrew in a Rapid City firehouse with the Spontaneous Heating, a gumbo that does South Carolina's Low Country proud. firehousebrewing.com
Tally's Silver Spoon In 2010, this popular Rapid City diner known for cozy breakfasts and soups added elegant dinners, such as black-truffled chicken. tallyssilverspoon.com
Deadwood Social Club Located above the scraggly Saloon No. 10, this northern Hills restaurant presents a creative menu, including a smoky pheasant pasta and an Italian-style buffalo ravioli. saloon10.com
Baker's Bakery and Cafe The legendary caramel rolls sell out fast in Custer; they complement chile-slathered breakfast burritos. (605) 673-2253
Alpine Inn Spaetzle, bratwurst, schnitzel and roasted-apple Napoleons are worth the wait in Hill City's historic hotel. alpineinnhillcity.com
Where to stay
Backroads Inn and Cabins (pictured) Outside Rapid City, these six newer cabins and rooms nestled under pine trees offer pretty quilts, basic kitchens, fire pits and plenty of charm. From $75. cabinsoftheblackhills.com
Alex Johnson Hotel This 1928 Rapid City landmark was renovated in 2010 but kept its historic roots; its lobby teems with leather chairs and artifacts from the region's Old West heyday. From $109. alexjohnson.com
Red Rock River Resort Modern, warm decor infuses character into nine rooms in this Hot Springs boutique hotel. You'll love the 24-hour spa with the bubble tub and heated sand floor. From $95. redrockriverresort.com
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® September/October 2011.)