It’s the land where the buffalo roam. Full of natural beauty, national monuments and kitschy bits of Americana, South Dakota has so much variety.
Badlands National Park, with its almost edge-of-the earth feel, vertical drops and horizontal stripes. The Black Hills National Forest, with those evergreens ever-reaching farther and farther up the mountains. And Custer State Park, where the buffalo – and a few prairie dogs and donkeys – roam. The natural wonders of South Dakota are astounding.
Badlands National Park
Begin your journey in Badlands National Park. Millions of years of erosion sculpted the stunning buttes and gullies you see today. Those horizontal stripes that look almost painted-on are the exposed sedimentary layers of the rock and soil, from different time periods.
The aptly-named “Wall” stretches 60 miles – and the park covers 244,000 acres. If you’re lucky, you’ll see all kinds of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, bison and some squeaky prairie dogs, popping their heads in and out of their underground homes.
Try to be here for sunset. It’s absolutely amazing.
Next on the natural beauty list is a specific type of topography that looks straight out of "The Flintstones."
One of the most amazing features of South Dakota’s landscape is the "needles," which are basically really tall rock formations that kind of look like needles. These granite spires were carved by wind and water erosion over millions of years. You can drive through all these needles, along Needles Highway, including one narrow section called the Eye of the Needle.
But pack your Dramamine, because there are some swirly, twirly National Scenic Byways here not to be missed. With steep drops and razor-sharp turns, you may wonder, who designed this crazy thing? Well, former South Dakota governor and U.S. senator Peter Norbeck did. He mapped it out on horse and on foot. Why? So that visitors would slow down and enjoy the incredible view, all while not harming the landscape. Part of the road is named the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.
Custer State Park
Needles Highway lies within Custer State Park, where the buffalo literally roam. And roam. And roam. In fact, Custer State Park contains one of the nation’s largest free-roaming buffalo herds. Which brings us to one of the more unique tourist attractions: the “buffalo jam.” The buffalo jam occurs when slow-driving tourists come across slow-roaming buffalo, and a happy little traffic jam of sorts takes place. Don’t worry: As long as you’re safely inside your vehicle, it’s the perfect close-but-not-too-close wildlife experience. Our personal experience included one buffalo licking the salt off our rental car. Guess that means he liked us?
You might also encounter deer and donkeys just roaming freely around the land the way nature intended.
Black Hills National Forest
From prairies to Christmas tree-covered mountains, this park has been protected since 1897 and covers 1.2 million acres of public land.
The beautiful Black Hills National Forest was so named by Native Americans because the evergreen trees that grow here are so dark green, they almost look black. Within the forest is Spearfish Creek and Spearfish Canyon Falls. Those names come from the water that was so clear, Native Americans could spearfish in them.
Black Hills National Forest includes many beautiful lodges, hiking trails, campsites and bike trails, such as the George S. Mickelson Trail, 109 miles long, with gentle slopes for all skill levels.
Tucked within all that natural beauty are two man-made awe-inspiring mountain-sized memorials. Mount Rushmore National Memorial honors some of the most influential U.S. presidents. Mount Rushmore was designed by Gutzon Borglum and was built between the 1920s and 1940s. You can still see some of the 450,000 tons of rock that was blown or chipped off the mountain at the base of this monumental and iconic sculpture.
Borglum’s vision was to have each president represent a different facet of the first 150 years of U.S. history. Washington represents the founding of our country, Jefferson represents expansion, Roosevelt represents development, and Lincoln, of course, represents preservation.
Each head is about is 60 feet tall, and each eye is about 11 feet wide.
Crazy Horse Memorial
But there’s another monumental monument here in South Dakota, and it was built in response to Mount Rushmore. In 1939, Chief Henry Standing Bear asked sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (who also worked on Mount Rushmore) if he would “like to let the white man know that the red man has great heroes also.” Ziolkowski was so taken aback that he created the design for the Crazy Horse Memorial.
Construction on the Crazy Horse Memorial began in the 1940s, and it is still a beautiful work in progress. If it is completed according to its original design, the carving will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long, making it larger than Mount Rushmore, the Washington Monument, the Pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx – possibly making it the largest sculpture in the world.
Today, some of Ziolkowski’s 10 children run the Crazy Horse Memorial and the on-site Visitor Center Complex, Indian Museum of North America and the Indian University of North America.
Next, from mountainous memorials to the quirkier side of South Dakota.
The historic town of Deadwood was established during the 1876 gold rush, to provide goods and services to all those gold miners. But it soon became a true Wild West town, full of saloons and gunslingers, including folk heroes such as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock. You can visit Old Style Saloon No. 10, where it is believed that Hickock was shot and killed (during a game of poker, of course).
But amidst all the gunslingin’, saloons and brothels, the Victorian architecture along Deadwood’s Main Street has been well-preserved and restored and is quite pretty. And the city itself is a National Historic Landmark.
Next, we leave the Wild West of the 19th century to partake in the 20th-century tradition of the family road trip. Complete with those quintessential roadside attractions.
Where can you find a giant jackalope? The world’s best maple doughnut? And, of course, Annie Oakley? Well, you just follow the hundreds of highway billboards to Wall Drug.
How to describe Wall Drug? Well, it’s a unique roadside attraction, to say the least. This mecca of kitsch is 70,000 square feet of part rest stop, part restaurant, part doughnut shop, part shopping mall, part amusement park, part museum and part art gallery – and even includes a traveler’s chapel.
This wacky yet wonderful idea all started in the 1930s with the original small family drugstore in the 1930s owned by Ted and Dorothy Hustead. Their grandson Rick Hustead now owns and runs Wall Drug and recalls his grandmother’s simple, yet brilliant idea to attract all those tourists off the highway.
“Dorothy thought how hot and thirsty these travelers are. Here we sit with a great big soda fountain, all the ice in the world and no customers. And she had an idea. She said, 'Ted, we gotta let people know we’re here. We should put up a sign: Get a soda, get a beer, turn next corner, just as near, Highway 14 and 16, free ice water, Wall Drugstore.' Ted thought it was a little corny, but it just might work.“
And work it did. From a simple idea of offering free ice water (which you can still get today) to becoming of one of South Dakota's and America’s most popular roadside attractions. The perfect pit stop between the natural beauty, the wonder and the Wild West history that is South Dakota. And did I mention the maple doughnuts are really good here too?