Fall Escape to South Dakota's Black Hills
South Dakota delivers a road trip full of outdoor adventures to our fact-checker and her husband.
Name: Helen Karakoudas Title: Fact-Checker
My Story: My husband and I tend to be day-trip people, but last year, we decided to take a longer road trip from our home in Rockford, Illinois. Inspired by pandemic travel tips in the fall 2020 issue of Midwest Living as well as a South Dakota fact-checking assignment, we set our sights on the Black Hills — an eight-day adventure over a total of more than 2,500 miles.
But First, Food
Breakfast Most mornings, we noshed on fruit, cheese and yogurt, but one day we opted to go big: Uncle Louie's Diner in Sturgis. I had the benny and my husband had the OMG omelette. We were at no loss for hot sauces. This eatery stocks the biggest selection we've ever seen – in curio cabinets!
Lunch In downtown Custer, Calamity Jane Coffee Shop and Grill is remarkable not only for its wide-ranging menu and top-notch rehab of an old storefront but also for opening in the middle of a pandemic (April 2020). You can get coffee, beer, wine, smoothies, Italian soda, kombucha, cinnamon rolls, burgers, sandwiches and appetizers. The garlic-fried cheese curds alone are worth the stop. (Foodie souvenirs available, too, like chokeberry syrup.)
Drink Highway signs for rhubarb wine had us so curious. On the way to Crazy Horse Memorial, we found their source: Prairie Berry Winery in Hill City. We discovered not one but two well-balanced, semi-sweet reds blended from rhubarb – including the road-sign headliner, Red Ass Rhubarb. Don't let the quirky names throw you. The quality and tasting room elegance of this fifth-generation winery, founded on European methods, make for a top-notch experience.
Wind Cave National Park is one of the oldest national parks and the first designated to protect a cave. We couldn't tour the cave because of pandemic protocols, but we could hike. Cold Brook Canyon Trail took us through a prairie dog town – where we learned that you hear prairie dogs before you see them. That was just enough notice to capture the little guys on our phones. We also saw two big guys — bison — and quietly stepped off the trail to let them pass. (You can see plenty of bison along Custer State Park's Wildlife Loop Road, too. Just remember to stay at least 25 yards away; bison need their space.)
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway in the Black Hills National Forest offers a spectacular drive for fall color! It's also the place to chase waterfalls. Roughlock Falls and Spearfish Falls were the two trails we hiked. Both were short (2 miles and 1.5 miles) and mostly easy (an elevation change in the second ranks it as moderate). They're in walking distance of each other, so no worries about finding a second parking spot. Just enjoy the scenery.
In Custer State Park, we hiked Prairie Trail, one of the park's 18 trails, with a trailhead on Wildlife Loop Road. Popular as this road is for the friendly burros that nuzzle up to your car, we had the entire trail to ourselves. What a refreshing trek this was on a sunny, gently breezy, glorious fall day. Guidebooks tell you Prairie Trail is 3 miles and moderate. I can confirm that and also say that this trail is a window into Mother Nature's splendor of Midwestern color.
On another day, we soaked in the magnificence of Sylvan Lake on the 1-mile trail that circles it. It's an easy-to-moderate trail, most of it a stroll just made for hand-holding.
More to Explore
Other memorable South Dakota stops included Mount Rushmore National Memorial (I especially recommend visiting in the evening); Spirit Mound Historic Prairie near Vermillion; Wall Drug; Badlands Loop Road in Badlands National Park; Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park; Dinosaur Park, a WPA-era project in Rapid City; Historic Deadwood; Dignity of Earth and Sky sculpture near Chamberlain; The World's Only Corn Palace in Mitchell; and Falls Park in Sioux Falls.
We saw so many lodging options at the Sylvan Lake area of Custer State Park (31 cabins plus Sylvan Lake Lodge, built in 1937)— my husband and I might make this our base camp for our *next* Black Hills vacation. Also top-of-mind for a post-pandemic South Dakota adventure: an aerial tour with Black Hills Helicopters.