Ageless beauty and outdoor adventure flourish in the Black Hills, in the state's southwest corner. You could easily spend a week or more here, but if you have only a couple of days, below are two itineraries: One for an overnight at Custer State Park, and the second for an overnight in Deadwood.
Instant Itinerary: Custer State Park Overnight
Custer State Park is a great place to meet the Black Hills. Entering the park from Keystone takes visitors on the Iron Mountain Road, full of switchbacks and breathtaking views.
Once past the gatehouse (where the one- to seven-day pass is $15), visitors can choose their pleasure: Fishing for rainbow trout in Grace Coolidge Creek, hiking to Harney Peak (the trail starts in the park, but the peak is outside), horseback riding, navigating the spectacular Needles Highway or driving along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop to spot bison. At Sylvan Lake, visitors swim, hike, fish, paddle and picnic. If you want to get up close to the park's bison herd, take a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour for a lively narrated 90-minute ride.
The park’s historic State Game Lodge is where President Calvin Coolidge liked to stay. (See "5 Great Places to Stay in Custer State Park" below for more details on lodging options). If you want to leave the park for dinner, Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City (30 miles north of the park) serves crispy fish and chips and flavorful ales.
Breakfast at the State Game Lodge includes a Belgian waffle bar, biscuits and gravy, and fresh fruit.
Guests easily fill a day exploring the huge park’s trails and creeks. But Jewel Cave National Monument, 20 miles west of the park, is worth a visit: It’s one of the longest caves in the world (more than 173 mapped miles!) and filled with calcite that glitters in lanterns’ light. Tours range from half hour introductions to several-hour caving adventures.
At the iconic Mount Rushmore National Monument, 25 miles north of Custer, a flag-lowering ceremony in the evening tugs at patriotic heartstrings and honors vets in the audience.
For information: Black Hills, Badlands and Lakes Association, (605) 355-3600; blackhillsbadlands.com
5 Great Places to Stay in Custer State Park
1 Blue Bell Lodge Modern cabins with woodsy accents and kitchenettes also have fire rings out front. Walk across the road to the dining room
for homestyle cooking. From $160. (888) 875-0001; custerresorts.com
2 Legion Lake Lodge Affordable cabins cluster on the hill over pretty Legion Lake. Families can swim, use the beachside playground, rent canoes and dine in the casual on-site restaurant. From $145. (888) 875-0001; custerresorts.com
3 State Game Lodge The main lodge preserves the feel of the 1920s, when President Coolidge used to summer here. Guests can stay in the lodge, in a motel-style stone-and-timber building or in cabins. From $115. (888) 875-0001; custerresorts.com
4 Camping Electrical hookups and clean showers put these sites on our radar. Evening educational programs share details of the inspiring landscape. From $25. (800) 710-2267; custerstatepark.com
5 Sylvan Lake Lodge Frank Lloyd Wright picked the lodge’s site on a rock-rimmed lake overlooking some of the prettiest views in the park. Rooms feel like midrange chain hotel spaces; the wow factor comes from the lobby, the veranda and the scenery. From $150. (888) 875-0001; custerresorts.com
All year long, travelers gaze in wonder at the bison, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs and burros in Custer State Park. But the biggest wildlife sighting happens each fall during the annual Buffalo Roundup (September 25, 2015). As many as 14,000 people wait hours to hear, see and feel 1,300 bison and a few bewildered burros thundering down the valley while they’re chased by dozens of cowboys on horseback. (605) 255-4515; custerstatepark.com
Bring the kids
Chuck wagon cookout Guests get a cowboy hat and bandana, then board a hay wagon near Custer State Park’s Blue Bell Lodge. Sing well-known country tunes on the way to the steak, burger and veggie cookout, then pile on the fixin’s. (888) 875-0001; custerresorts.com
Instant Itinerary: Deadwood Overnight
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, a sculpting feat that honors four presidents, draws sightseers to the Hills’ eastern edge. Walk the Presidential Trail for up-close views of the sculpture.
For unrivaled scenery, take the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, which has 20 miles of craggy cliffs, waterfalls and forest.
In Deadwood, a glassblower demonstrates her art at Pump House, where you can also snag a sandwich and coffee.
The Deadwood Social Club features some of the region’s finest dining, with dishes such as smoked pheasant over fettuccine with Tuaca cream sauce.
Plan to stay at The Lodge at Deadwood Gaming Resort, where comfy guest suites each have a huge whirlpool tub (from $139).
An hour south, the 67-year-old-and-counting Crazy Horse Memorial—a work in progress since 1948— aims to be the world’s largest sculpture.
Eat there at The Laughing Water Restaurant, with its Native American artistry, or try Buglin’ Bull Restaurant and Sports Bar, known for buffalo burgers, in nearby Custer.
Farther south, a Hot Springs sinkhole holds the skeletons of 61 mammoths; visitors watch the in-progress dig at The Mammoth Site. Also in the area, the naturally warm mineral waters of Evans Plunge have soothed visitors for years. Guests can also splash into a pool via slides.
Fourteen miles beyond Hot Springs, guides take visitors on panoramic tours of the 11,000-acre Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, home to more than 500 mustangs and other horses.
More information: (605) 355-3600; blackhillsbadlands.com
Crazy Horse Memorial Travelers come from all over the globe to see the great Oglala Lakota leader (his face 90 feet high) emerge from the world’s largest mountain carving. Work began in 1948 and continues daily; painted lines on the mountainside help visitors imagine what it will look like when finished. Learn about Native American culture at the visitors center and through dancers sharing customs and stories. (605) 673-4681; crazyhorsememorial.org
By the numbers
3 bucks buys a day pass to the George S. Mickelson Trail, a converted-railbed multiuse path running 109 miles beside streams, over trestles and through tunnels between Deadwood and Edgemont. mickelsontrail.com