Awe-inspiring buttes, pinnacles and spires fill 242,756-acre Badlands National Park, which welcomes hikers or sightseers who simply want to drive through. Trails range from short and easy to demanding treks of up to 10 miles.
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.
Save room in your day for a visit to the free Minuteman Missile Site (see “Inside Scoop” below for details on how to score tour tickets).
Cabins (from $150) and rooms (from $120), plus a restaurant and classy gift shop, at Cedar Pass Lodge and Badlands Inn round out a stay.
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 to learn about area history through a dinosaur dig and exhibits on the history of the Black Hills.
The South Dakota Air and Space Museum gives a free look at historical aircraft, indoors and outdoors.
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 loaded with sausage, shrimp, clams and chicken served over rice.
A stop at the President’s 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.
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.
The renovated Hotel Alex Johnson exudes a sense of history; many presidents have stayed here (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 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 near the entrance to Badlands National Park first thing in the morning. Tickets go fast, so stay at Cedar Pass Lodge in the park 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 4–10, 2014). If not, plan to visit another time. (605) 720-0800; sturgismotorcyclerally.com