I realized the other night there’s something I need to fix here. I woke up from a dead sleep with the thought that I have done a disservice to South Dakota. I ran a half marathon there a few years ago and it was my 34th state as part of my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states in the US. You can read all about the Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon here. However, I only recently realized I never wrote up a proper blog on all of the things to do in South Dakota. Now I will fix that.
On my journey to run a half marathon in all 50 states, I visited North Dakota first. No offense if you live in North Dakota, but I didn’t care much for Bismarck and the surrounding areas when I was there. It all seemed drab, uninteresting, and everyone there that we talked to kept talking about how much they dreaded winter coming even though it was only September. Maybe there are “better” parts of North Dakota, but this was my experience.
When it came time to plan my race and vacation afterwards (or “racecation”) for South Dakota, I expected the area to be similar to North Dakota since they are adjoining states. I couldn’t have been more wrong. South Dakota seemed like a complete 180 degree difference from North Dakota to me. There’s only one national park in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, about a 2 hour drive from Bismarck, plus two national historic sites. However, there are two national parks plus four service sites in South Dakota: Badlands National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, Missouri National Recreational River, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and Wind Cave National Park. That’s just the national parks and sites, too; there’s also the Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, and some fun wild-west towns.
If you want to choose one place as your home base and take day trips to see as many of these places as possible, Rapid City is a good choice. There are a multitude of hotels and restaurants and you won’t have to do hours on end of driving in a day. 37 miles (about a 45 minute drive) from Rapid City is the Crazy Horse Memorial. Crazy Horse is the world’s largest in-progress sculpture carving, as well as the longest ongoing, having begun in 1948. When the sculpture is complete it will not only feature the Oglala Lakota warrior known as Crazy Horse but also his horse and will be 27 feet taller than Mount Rushmore. There’s a restaurant on the grounds, gift shop, museum, cultural center, and more that you can read about on their website here.
After leaving the Crazy Horse Memorial, drive 16 miles to Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone. There is free admission to Mount Rushmore but you will have to pay parking fees. Carvers’ Cafe is the only dining facility in the park and it serves food typical in a US national park (sandwiches, burgers, salads, soups, chicken meals, desserts, and drinks). I also recommend visiting the Lincoln Borglum Museum at the memorial. One special activity is park ranger talks that accompany the sculpture illumination every year starting the Friday before Memorial Day. Although the park ranger talks stop mid-September, the sculpture is illuminated after sunset all year.
For your next day trip, drive an hour south to visit Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. If you go to Jewel Cave first and end with Wind Cave, the drive back to Rapid City is more direct. I highly recommend getting there early to make in-person reservations for a tour ahead of time at both places or you may get there only to be disappointed the tour you really wanted to do is booked for the day. You can only make online reservations for large groups and some tours sell out by 11 am. Surprisingly, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the busiest days so you actually might encounter smaller crowds on weekends. Although Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave on Earth, you definitely want to go to both caves because they are very different experiences. It’s also a good idea to bring a sweater even in the summer because Jewel Cave is a constant 40 degrees F year-round.
Custer State Park, about 45 minutes south of Rapid City, is the largest state park in South Dakota and is definitely worth a full day. The park is full of approximately 1,300 bison, bighorn sheep, burros, prairie dogs, and mule deer. Drive the scenic Wildlife Loop Road through the park but also get out and explore the park’s trails. On your way back to Rapid City, take Needles Highway (SD-87). This National Scenic Byway is gorgeous and you’ll see the famous Needles Eye Tunnel. Stop and look around at the panoramic views, and then find the trailhead for the Cathedral Spires Trail. It’s only 1.6 miles long but offers some incredible views.
About an hour from Rapid City is one of my favorite places in South Dakota, Badlands National Park. This national park is 244,000 acres and has one of the most unique landscapes I’ve seen. In addition to buffalo, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, prairie dogs and numerous birds that you’ll see in the park, fossil hunting is allowed as long as you leave everything where you found it, and there are of course many trails you can explore. The only lodging and restaurant in the park is Cedar Pass Lodge and Restaurant.
If you want to see a Wild West town, Deadwood is a fun place and is about an hour’s drive from Rapid City. You can go to the Black Hills Mining Museum, Adams Museum to learn about the history of the Black Hills, tour the Broken Boot Gold Mine, and go to the 1876 Dinner Theater. You can also find a casino, breweries and wineries, and many types of walking tours. Some people might think of the area as touristy and even cheesy but I found the museums interesting and worth checking out to learn more about the history of the area.
This is just a sampling of some places to visit and things to do in the western region of South Dakota. There’s also Bear Butte State Park in Sturgis, Roughlock Falls Nature Area in Lead, George S. Mickelson Trail in Lead, and Fort Meade Recreation Area in Sturgis for some other great outdoor places to visit. Amazingly, this is all just one section of South Dakota. There are also dozens of other state parks, recreation areas, forests, and nature areas in the central, northeast, and southeast regions of South Dakota, which you can find on this comprehensive website.
Have you been to South Dakota? If so, are there places you visited that I left off here?