Prairie and rolling hills lining Interstate-90 give way to rugged outcroppings about an hour east of Rapid City. Those buttes and slopes envelop visitors in a geologic maze encompassing 35 million years of history.
Awe-inspiring buttes, pinnacles and spires dot 242,756-acre Badlands National Park, which welcomes hikers or sightseers who simply want to drive through.
Start your visit at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center at the eastern end of the park for a quick course in the area’s geology and wildlife and to see fossils at the Saber Site.
Spend the day driving the 31-mile Badlands Loop Road, stopping for scenic views or hikes. Some are easy strolls, such as Fossil Trail with boardwalks and the prairie dog town. Other hikes are steep, demanding treks of up to 10 miles (bring water). For best views, visit early or late in the day when shadows transform the scenery.
For in-depth looks at fossils and the night sky, join 15- to 45-minute ranger-led programs.
Stay at recently constructed cabins (from $157) or a historical cottage (from $157) at Cedar Pass Lodge in the park or rooms (from $126) at the nearby Badlands Inn. The restaurant at Cedar Pass Lodge serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Start your day with a visit to the free Minuteman Missile Site (see “Inside Scoop” below for details on how to score tour tickets).
As you leave the Badlands, you must stop at Wall Drug. Since 1931, the sprawling, kitschy roadside attraction has given out free ice water; today, it also has a restaurant, an ice cream parlor, plenty of shops and even dinos.
Once you arrive in Rapid City, stop at The Journey Museum and Learning Center. A big-screen movie sets the tone for your walk through time. You'll get a feel for how much one place changes through centuries, such as the dinosaur period, Wild West days and the tragic flood of 1972.
At the South Dakota Air and Space Museum, get up-close to 28 jets, missiles and helicopters and learn how they once sped through air and space.
For lunch, Firehouse Brewing Company celebrates the building’s heritage with brass-and-red decor, plus Firehouse Red ale and a dish called Spontaneous Heating, a spicy thick gumbo.
A stop at the Presidents Information Center gets you a map to the 42 life-size bronze statues of U.S. presidents lining downtown’s City of Presidents walk.
Prairie Edge Trading Company and Galleries sells authentic Native American art, beaded dolls, drums, pottery, clothing and jewelry.
At the Museum of Geology, displays of fossils are appropriate considering the Badlands down the road. Although paleontology is intriguing, mineralogy is dazzling, so check out the shiny gems and glittering gold nuggets.
Diner food goes fancy at Tally’s Silver Spoon. The Donald and Porky sandwich features shaved ham, foie gras, onions, pickles and Swiss cheese on a toasted bun.
Considering that the Hotel Alex Johnson was named for the vice-president of the Chicago and North Western Railway (and founder of this hotel), railroad artifacts are a natural decor choice. But the original Native American and Germanic Tudor aspects of the 1928 building were also preserved during an extensive renovation. History pervades the 143 rooms, some of which have sheltered presidents (from $79).
More information: National Park Service: Badlands (605) 355-3700; nps.gov/badl
Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau (800) 487-3223; visitrapidcity.com
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site This partly underground spot near Wall shows how the potential to launch missiles from the prairie acted as a nuclear war deterrent during The Cold War. Engaging tours of the launch control facility run year-round. To get free tickets, go to the visitors center just off Interstate-90 first thing in the morning. Tickets go fast, so stay at Cedar Pass Lodge or Badlands Inn for quick access. (605) 433-5552; nps.gov/mimi
One Big Party
If hanging out with 400,000 bikers sounds like your kind of vacation, head to the Black Hills during the weeks surrounding the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (August 3–9, 2015). If not, plan to visit another time. (605) 720-0800; sturgismotorcyclerally.com