Andrew and I have been wanting to travel to South Dakota ever since we moved to Nebraska and since we are so close we thought that it would be fun to make it a road trip adventure! Because Andrew's mom, Charlotte (all three of us pictured above), was on Spring Break, we invited her to join us and were please that she accepted! Although, we only had two days in The Black Hills, with my ninja planning skills operating at full capacity, we were able to make our adventures work!
We stayed in Hill City, SD which I would highly recommend. It was the absolute perfect location! South Dakota is a big state, as you know, and most of the things I'm going to mention were not close to each other. Hill City proved to be the most central location to all of the large attractions. We chose to visit South Dakota in the off season because we were told from May-August it's swarming with tourists! It was so nice to be able to take our time doing whatever we wanted and not have to fight the crowds. I'd highly recommend visiting in April or September if you're able. From what I understand, April can be a hit of miss as there might still be snow. We got really lucky because while we were there, it was mostly sunny and a comfortable temperature.
It was a bit chilly on our first day so we decided to do the activities that were for the most part, indoors. Early that morning, we drove to Jewel Cavern in Custer, SD. The cave is the third longest cave in the world with over 180 miles of mapped passage ways and more to be discovered. We chose to do the Scenic Tour which provides an opportunity to visit different cave chambers and see many of the "decorations" the cave has to offer. You will be walking up and down 723 stairs and a 1/2 mile in total so make sure you bring comfortable shoes and dress warmly. The cave temperature is always 49 degrees Fahrenheit. I've been inside several caves throughout my travels and this was by far the most diversified. It had very different formations than what I was accustomed. The tour is only $12 per person and totally worth it! You could pick a cold and/or rainy day to do this tour as it's all obviously underground. The next thing on our list for the day was Custer State Park. This was by far my favorite activity that we did in South Dakota. We chose to drive on the Wildlife Loop which travels through 18 miles of open grasslands and hills. This is where you have a chance to see much of the park's wildlife. You might see bison, pronghorn, whitetail and mule deer, elk, coyotes, burros, prairie dogs, eagles, hawks, and a variety of other birds. The wildlife did not disappoint us; we got up close and personal with some of the animals. The loop itself isn't long but we spent about two hours driving it because we stopped for so many pictures and to watch the animals roam. This loop gives a whole new meaning to "where the buffalo roam..." After our drive through the park, we drove back to our rental cabin on The Needles highway which is also a must do in South Dakota! The rock formations are insane and you might even see a mountain goat climbing to the top! We were really lucky and were able to spot a lot of wildlife. If you have binoculars, take them with you!
On our second day we traveled to Mt. Rushmore which is about 20 minutes from Hill City. I've heard mixed reviews about the mountain, some people loved it and some people weren't as impressed. I'm going to say I was very impressed!!! We spent a total of four hours at the National Memorial. First, I'd recommend stopping at the book store (right when you walk in, to your left) to grab a map, then walk through all of the state flags where you'll come to the first viewing point of this amazing sculpture. Before you do anything else, you'll want to visit the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center to view exhibits and a 15 minute film describing the reasons for and methods used in carving Mount Rushmore. I highly recommend that you allow sufficient time in the Visitors Center to read about the exhibits. If you're there around the lunch hour, you should eat at the cafe, it's good food and allows you to spend more time on the mountain. Once you have a full belly and some extra energy you'll want to walk the Presidential Trail which is about 0.6 miles long. This trail allows you to get up close and personal with the mountain sculpture and possibly see some area wildlife. Are you noticing a wildlife trend?! If you visit May-September, then you'll get the chance to see the Sculptor's Studio, where Gutzon Borglum spent much of his time refining his scale model. After our walk, we went back to the cafe and got a very large ice cream treat! The entire experience at Mount Rushmore was amazing and I'd go back again and again as I'm sure I'd learn something new each time. We were on a high after this experience and wanted to continue the mountain sculpture theme. Next on our list was The Crazy Horse Memorial. This is a mountain monument under construction on private land in The Black Hills. It's about 15 minutes from Mount Rushmore. The sculpture depicts Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior. I am positive that when this memorial is finished it will be absolutely stunning; however, it has been in progress since 1948 and is far from completion. If ever completed, it will become the world's largest sculpture. I hate to this but, I was not impressed. It cost $28 per car to get onto the property and there isn't much to see once you are there. If you're interested in Indian artifacts, then I'd say you should definitely stop by but if you only want to catch a glimpse of the sculpture, you can see it from the road and read all about it online. Before coming on the trip, I was told by numerous people that we had to stop here but I was seriously underwhelmed. I think I was disappointed because the chances of this memorial to be finished in my lifetime are slim-to-none. I will say, it's a site to behold as the memorial is massive and will truly be a masterpiece if ever completed.
Our last adventure in South Dakota was to The Badlands. We drove the 240 Loop Road which took us about an hour and a half. The Badlands is a place everyone should see at least once in his/her lifetime! I've never seen anything like it before, you truly feel like you should be on Mars when you're driving through the park. The Badlands draw visitors from around the world and the geological features are striking! Because ancient mammals such as the saber-toothed cat once roamed here, it's also one of the world's richest fossil beds. I can't explain the site here, it's something you need to experience for yourself.
Because we were driving to South Dakota from Omaha, Nebraska we were able to do a lot of extra stops on our road trip. We stopped at two total tourist traps: The Corn Palace and Wall Drug. Both of these places are now on the list of "I've been there but won't go again." Neither place is a must do but if you're already driving through you might as well stop. If you don't have the option to drive and you're flying from South Dakota I'd say you should stay in Hill City unless you're interested in good food and night life. Hill City has very few places to eat and nothing to do past 8 o'clock pm. Our family was totally fine with that as we had a hot tub at our cabin and plenty of board games to keep us happy. Additionally, we were so tired by night fall that we had no energy to do anything. If you're interested in staying for an extended period and you'd rather stay in a more happening place, I'd recommend Rapid City. If you choose Rapid City you'll be driving anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to do any of the things I've mentioned. Feel free to contact me about any questions from our trip or if you'd like the information about the cabin we stayed in. Also, I'd love to hear your commends if you've been to South Dakota before and agree or disagree about any of the adventures listed!
A southern girl living in the Mid-West. My husband and I love to travel and go on new adventures--We love Jesus and the blessings He provides!