There are a lot of great outdoor destinations to which adventure seekers of all skill and experience levels can venture. The Rockies, the Sierras, or the Pacific Northwest for example. Yet, people tend to overlook the western side of South Dakota, home to several national parks and monuments, the Black Hills National Forest, two national grasslands, and Black Elk Wilderness. In my opinion, there is absolutely no reason that the entire Black Hills and Badlands area shouldn’t be considered an outdoor recreation destination. This is my third trip to the area, and I’m already planning my fourth; it’s that awesome.
So let’s get started on a whirlwind tour of good times to be had in the area, starting with the larger of South Dakota’s national parks, the Badlands.
What do you want to do during your visit to Badlands National Park? Do you want to hike, to check out the view from amazing scenic overlooks, or to camp in this stark but beautiful environment? The good news is that you can do all of this in the Badlands!
On my first trip to the Badlands, I watched as the landscape shifted from grassland to the towering deposits, precipitous canyons, and layered rock formations for which the park is known. I couldn’t help but think everything looked alien, and to this day I haven’t lost my sense of wonderment when nearing the Badlands.
There’s no other place like it in South Dakota, maybe even the world, so take some time to soak it in.
So, where should you start?
You always have the option of driving the Badlands Loop Road, and stopping at the various overlooks. Just driving the winding loop puts a variety of spires, canyons, and hoodoos on display. Keep an eye out for wildlife, as well as other vehicles who may be stopped observing that wildlife.
And while you’re driving that loop, you should feel inclined to park at some of the many overlooks and stretch your legs. There are many pull-offs that allow you to observe some of the incredible formations that centuries of depositing and erosion have created in what is now this one-of-a-kind national park. Some of these overlooks are wheelchair accessible, so every member of your family can cast their gaze upon the stark beauty that makes up the Badlands.
You may also wish to explore on foot, which I always think is preferable. In the past, we’ve explored the Door and Windows Trail, the Notch Trail, and Saddle Pass Trail. On this trip, however, we had a little something different planned. We decided to backpack off the beaten path and spend a night alone on the grassy hills of Badland National Park, just the two of us. Well, the two of us and the bison.
This is the second time we’ve camped in the Badlands; last year we stayed at the Sage Creek campsite, which is itself a little off the beaten path. This year, we used the site as our point of embarkment. We parked, unloaded our packs, wrote our names in the registry, and then started hiking south along Sage Creek.
Unlike other national parks in which we’ve camped, you don’t have to get a permit to backcountry camp in the Badlands. It is advisable to check in with a ranger at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center before you head out, just for safety’s sake. Also, there is no potable water to be found in the Badlands, so make sure that you carry enough in with you.
We set up for the night on a small plateau overlooking Sage Creek and the herd below us. As the sun set and the sky grew dark, we sat watching the sky shift from day to night. Miles from light pollution, the stars filled the sky above us, visible even through the mesh ceiling of our backpacking tent as we dozed off in our sleeping bags.
The next morning I awoke at twilight, and went about the task of documenting the oncoming sunrise. The harsh environment of the Badlands takes on a softer glow at dawn. The temperatures haven’t yet peaked, nor has the sun climbed high enough to shine upon you so aggressively. No, morning in the backcountry of the Badlands was pleasant and peaceful, as bison munched on grass and the sun climbed over the horizon. I could stand to spend more mornings here.
As the sun rose higher, we packed up our kit and began the hike back to our Sportage, parked at the Sage Creek campground. We unloaded, took one last look at the hills we had climbed in the distance, and then hit the road. The Black Hills awaited.
There are a lot of beautiful places in the world, and I’ve visited a number of them, from the ruins of Irish castles, to the snow covered Sierra Nevadas in California. Yet, I’ve never found myself as captivated by a place as I have by the Black Hills of South Dakota. My wife likes to joke that on our first visit together, I just stared out the car window, my mouth agape. She may be exaggerating a little, but not by much.
The Black Hills are full of opportunities for adventure. It seems like you can’t drive anywhere without passing several trailheads and a couple of campsites, and that’s essentially how I feel life should be.
The first thing people may think of doing in the area is visiting Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and understandably so. As you stroll up the Avenue of Flags, find the pillar representing your home state, and then march on to Grand View Terrace to look at the memorial head on. If it’s busy, you may have to wait for your photo op.
For more photo opportunities, I recommend taking the half-mile Presidential Trail. You’ll still have a crowd, but it will be thinner than the one at Grand View Terrace, and you’ll also get a chance to stop by the Sculptor’s Studio for more information and history.
For me, however, the Hills are less about tourist attractions and more about natural attractions. Like I said before, there are campsites and trails everywhere. Our first night staying in the Black Hills this trip, we decided to camp at Horsethief Lake Campground. It’s a very nice designated site, and we camped right next to the lake. More importantly, it was close to the Horsethief Lake Trailhead.
I’m a big fan of public lands hiking, and Horsethief Lake Trail leads into the Black Elk Wilderness—13,426 acres of beautiful wilderness—in the heart of the Black Hills.
We hiked in about two miles, scrambled up some of the granite jutting from the earth, and surveyed the beauty of the forest around us. The mountains in the Black Hills area may not reach the elevation of those farther west, but you’ll still feel like you’re on top of the world when your gaze stretches out for miles. Life doesn’t get any better than this.
With over 450 miles of trail in the Black Hills, Horsethief Lake Trail was only one of the places where we got our boots dirty. When we rolled into the Rapid City area, we met up with a friend who led us down the Flume Trail to Sheridan Lake. There, we scrambled up to Dakota Point, where my friend asked me, “Are you going to jump?”
If that sounds ominous, don’t let it worry you. The water is eighty feet deep below that thirty foot drop, and though it seems scary, it was incredibly exciting to plunge into the water below us. I just want to add, before going on, that it’s best not to jump into water unless you know how deep it is. That’s why Clarissa and I are grateful that our friend graciously served as our guide!
If a thirty foot drop into the water is a little more than you’re ready for, don’t worry, we checked out a smaller jump too. For this splash, you’ll want to head to Cascade Falls, outside of Hot Springs. Cascade Falls is spring-fed, so the water is nice and clear as well as refreshingly cool. Once upon a time, this was probably a secret local spot, but social media has brought it to public attention.
With that in mind, remember this isn’t a huge place; if the parking lot is full, so is the water. If you find that there’s still plenty of room for you, take a little jump in over the small waterfall. It’s only a few feet down into the water, and the water is only 6-8 feet deep, but it’s a whole lot of a fun on a hot day!
If you’re more of a road warrior than a hiker, the Black Hills also has some interesting opportunities for you to take advantage of in your car or on your motorcycle. Custer State Park is a great place to start. If you’re into twists and turns, check out Needles Highway.
The 14-mile National Scenic Byway, completed in 1922, is full of sharp turns and curves, tunnels just large enough for one car to pass at a time, and towering granite spires.
If you’re more interested in animal life, Custer State Park also has a fantastic Wildlife Loop Road. Traveling through 18 miles of grasslands and woodland, you’re likely to see bison, pronghorn, burros, whitetail and mule deer. You’ll want to travel slowly, and you need to be prepared to stop if bison decide to hang out on the road, which they do.
All told, plan on spending 45 minutes to an hour on the Wildlife Loop. The best time to go is in the morning or evening, when the animals tend to be most active. Despite heavy rains, the bison still enjoyed getting up close and personal, so rain or shine, take your time, and enjoy the views and the wildlife.
Iron Mountain, a section of National Scenic Highway 16A, is intended to make you slow down. You’ll find twists, turns, sharp curves, and pigtail bridges. You’ll also encounter one-lane tunnels, so be prepared to take turns. Interestingly enough, a number of these tunnels are designed so that they will frame the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the distance.
We didn’t experience seeing the Memorial, however, on account of the heavy rain and dense fog in the area while we traversed Iron Mountain. You can plan all you want, but you can’t control the weather! Still, we enjoyed driving the winding road, as motorcyclists in rain gear passed by in the other lane.
Another great spot to visit on a rainy day is Wind Cave National Park. The park’s namesake, Wind Cave, is an intricate network of passages, and like most caves, the climate is consistently around 55 degrees, regardless of season. Five different cave tours are offered year-round. All are ranger-led, and tickets are sold first-come, first-serve, so make sure you come early if you’re eager for a tour—which you should be!
With 140.47 miles explored, Wind Cave is the sixth-longest cave in the world, but it’s also the densest; that is to say that Wind Cave has the highest volume of passages per cubic mile of any cave system on the planet. It is literally a maze of passageways down there, so don’t get separated from your group! Wind Cave is also known for the large amount of boxwork exhibited.
This calcite formation is beautiful and intricate, and Wind Cave is full of it. In fact, roughly 95 percent of known boxwork formations are located in this system!
Above ground, Wind Cave National Park is home to one of the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairies in the United States, and one of only four free roaming bison herds that are genetically pure that inhabit public lands in North America. We didn’t have the opportunity to explore the trails or camp in Wind Cave National Park on this trip, but it’s definitely on the list for future trips, of which there will be many.
Because that’s the thing. One trip to the western side of South Dakota just isn’t enough. The backcountry of Badlands National Park will exude mystery, making you ask yourself, “I wonder what’s just over that hill?” Exploring Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park, and the Black Elk Wilderness will similarly call to you; “What’s around that curve in the road, beyond that twist in the trail, or just over the horizon?” You won’t know until you explore it, which is why I’ll be back exploring the Badlands and Black Hills before you know it.
I hope to see you out there.