The southwest corner of South Dakota surprises with stunning landscapes, rich history, and abundant wildlife.
For East and West Coasters, South Dakota is squarely within flyover country. But when ground travel was the only option, this was the Grand Central Station of the American West. Lewis and Clark passed through, Crazy Horse fought for freedom, and an 1876 gold rush in the Lakota-owned Black Hills created a miner's camp known as Deadwood that lured frontiers woman Calamity Jane and gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok. After a long, prairie-flat preamble in the east, western South Dakota abruptly changes into two beautiful but distinct landscapes, the striated, fossil-rich sedimentary buttes of the Badlands, and the nearby mountains so thick in evergreens that the native Lakota called them paha sapa—hills that are black. Following a lopsided figure-eight drive of about 350 miles (563 kilometers), with Rapid City at the junction, packs a best-of-the-west itinerary with a variety of sights, Wild West towns, free-ranging wildlife, and the iconic expression of American democracy, Mount Rushmore. Originally carved to get motorists out to South Dakota, the monument draws some three million visitors annually. "People come to see Mount Rushmore but what they discover is how beautiful everything else is," says Mary Kopco, director of the Adams Museum and Historic Adams House in Deadwood.
Start at Rapid City
Heading east from Rapid City on I-90, take Exit 131 to the northeast entrance of Badlands National Park (tel. 1 605 433 5361; www.nps.gov/badl). The Badlands State Scenic Byway drops immediately beside the park's serrated sandstone spires, which are banded in layers of purple, red, and orange rock that indicate their age. The quarter-mile Window Trail acquaints hikers with the striped sediment, though you'll see more wildflowers and rock-nesting swallows on the less-traveled Castle Trail across the road. The park's Ben Reifel Visitor Center introduces park geology and stories of human habitation, including tales about 19th-century homesteaders who tried to farm the arid land. Tucked below a butte just south of the park border, Circle View Guest Ranch (www.circleviewranch.com) offers intrepid travelers a chance to bunk down like a homesteader in a rustic 1889 cabin.
Prairie Dog Town
Most park goers take the exit for the town of Wall back on the highway, but an off-the-beaten-path sight warrants visiting. Follow the gravel Sage Creek Rim Road to Prairie Dog Town, where the social rodents sit perched atop their burrows throughout the day despite the presence of nearby bison.
In Wall, billboard advertiser Wall Drug Store (tel. 1 605 279 2175; www.walldrug.com) has been attracting drivers with promises of "free ice water" since 1931. The most self-promotional tourist trap in the West now stocks quality camping gear and $500 Lucchese cowboy boots, but you can still get their classic souvenir "jack-a-lope" (a mounted hare's head with antelope-like antlers), polished fossils, and sheriff's badges along with that ice water.
Mount Rushmore National Monument
Heading back toward Rapid City, swing south via Highway 16 to Mount Rushmore National Monument (tel. 1 605 574 2523; www.nps.gov/moru), where sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the original artist assigned to carve Stone Mountain in Georgia, immortalized Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt on a 5,725-foot-tall (1,745-meter-tall) stone mountain. The Presidential Trail provides dramatic views from the foot of the mountain and passes the sculptor's studio, where rangers offer talks on how 400 men and women blasted, chiseled, and smoothed the monument for 14 years with no fatalities.
Custer State Park
A tangle of winding mountain roads leads to and away from Rushmore, but don't miss Iron Mountain Road (Hwy. 16A), which wriggles around the granite spires and through tunnels that frame the monument in the rearview mirror. The road takes a western turn within Custer State Park (http://gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/custer/default.aspx), 71,000 preserved acres (28,733 preserved hectares) of granite, pine, and prairie. Drive the park's 18-mile (29-killometer) Wildlife Loop Road, where grasslands support a herd of 1,500 bison in addition to pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. About halfway along the route, get out and view the summer wildflower displays from the three-mile (five-kilometer) Prairie Trail.
Refuel in Custer, on the western edge of the park via Highway 16, at Sage Creek Grill (tel. 1 605 673 2424), which makes the region's best buffalo burger. Back in the park, drive the stunning 13-mile (21-kilometer) Needles Highway, which threads the namesake granite spires in a series of dizzying twists and turns. Look for the roadside turnoff at the Cathedral Spires Trail for a three-mile (five-kilometer) round-trip hike through ponderosa pines and granite boulders. At the edge of the mountain, enjoy views of 7,242-foot (2,207-meter) Harney Peak, the state's tallest mountain.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Emerging from the park, head west to Custer, then north five miles (eight kilometers) to the still-under-construction Crazy Horse Memorial (www.crazyhorse.org). The Native American answer to Rushmore commemorates the 19th-century Lakota warrior who fought to preserve traditional tribal values. In the visitors center, tribal craftspeople create and sell beaded jewelry and wood carvings.
Northbound 385 leads straight into the honky-tonk town of Deadwood, where Old Style Saloon #10 (657 Main St.; tel. 1 605 578 3346; www.saloon10.com) stages daily reenactments (during the summer) of Wild Bill Hickok's murder at the poker table. Visitors can play a hand at the gaming tables themselves.
The winding scenic roads along this route—from the ridge-crossing Badlands Byway to the granite-cut Needles Highway—are engineering marvels, making this part of the state a road-tripper's rapture. If driving is the only way to see the Black Hills and Badlands region, the best way to get there is the small but efficient airport at Rapid City. Four days allow for hiking in these unique landscapes while also hitting the area's many highs. The best times to drive this route are summer, late spring, or early fall. For local weather conditions, see www.weather.com.
—Text by Elaine Glusac, adapted from National Geographic Traveler