The Black Hills and the Badlands

by jdroth on 06 July 2015 · 1 comment

Who knew? South Dakota is filled with things to do. Kim and I have been surprised by how much fun we’ve had in the southwest corner of this state.

Everyone knows about Mount Rushmore, of course. And sure, the mountain monument is impressive:

Mount Rushmore!
Mount Rushmore would have been neater at the start of our trip. Now we’re jaded.

But that might be the least impressive thing about the Black Hills region.

You see, the Black Hills are something of an anomaly. They’re 5000 square miles of mountainous terrain in western South Dakota (and parts of Wyoming). They rise like islands in the vast sea that is the Great Plains. The area is forested and dotted with lakes, so that the land looks and feels nothing at all like the prairie that surrounds it.

Locals flock to the Black Hills for recreation opportunities, including boating and fishing. Most popular, however, seem to be ATVs. There are four-wheelers everywhere — even on the highway. Plus there’s the hundred-mile-long George Mickelson Trail, a multi-use path for runners and bikers that winds from Deadwood south to Edgemont.

The locals also seem to like Deadwood, which in past lives was a gold-rush mecca and then a ghost town. Today, it’s like a mini Las Vegas. The town is blighted with slot machines and game tables. Want to visit the city’s historic sites? You’ll have to wade through aisles of flashing lights to do so.

We spent Independence Day in Deadwood, which meant gunfights, horses, and motorcycle stunts.

Nearby Sturgis is another huge draw, and not just for locals. Although the famous motorcycle rally only occurs one week out of the year, bikers flock to the city year-round. They come to visit familiar landmarks, such as the Full Throttle Saloon (the world’s largest biker bar) and the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum.

Full Throttle Saloon
Kim was excited to visit the famous Full Throttle Saloon…

Emmett the donkey
…and we both cracked up at the pet donkey that stood by the swamp cooler.

The motorcycle museum was fascinating.

For out-of-towners like me and Kim, the Black Hills offer other attractions. We were impressed with Wind Cave National Park, located just 45 minutes from Mount Rushmore. We both like caves, and try to visit them whenever possible. Wind Cave was cool because it was different. Instead of a small chamber filled with stalagmites and stalactites, we found a half-mile long tunnel comprising big, open rooms and unique mineral formations. “That was awesome,” Kim said when we’d finished our ninety minute tour, and I agree.

It isn’t really possible to photograph just how cool these caves were.

There’s plenty more to see and do in the Black Hills — including Devil’s Tower, Custer State Park, and lots of Native American history — but after five nights, we decided to hop east to the edge of Badlands National Park.

Just south of Wall (home of the famous but frivolous Wall Drug Store — skip it!), we pulled our motorhome onto Buffalo Gap National Grassland, where we were able to drycamp for free. We drove both of our vehicles down a sketchy dirt road until we found a place to park on the edge of a cliff overlooking the fantastic rock formations below.

Parked on the edge of the badlands!
Our best camping spot on the trip if not for the bloodthirsty flies and mosquitoes.

From there, we spent a day exploring the area. We drove into Badlands National Park and marveled at the other-worldly landscape.

When you’re in the Badlands, you feel like you’re on another planet.

I saw my first-ever rattlesnake, which sent shivers down my spine (it was just a couple of feet away from the footpath). Other wildlife highlights: Bison strolling down the center of the street…and a jackalope.

Rattlers don’t scare me as much as bears, but they sure ain’t cuddly.

No big deal: just a bison out for a stroll…

Jackalopes are real!

We spent less than a week in the Black Hills and the Badlands, but we both agreed we could have stayed longer. Someday, we’ll be back. Who knew South Dakota could be so much fun?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 JC Webber III 13 April 2016 at 14:39

I know it’s too late (cause you’ve already left the area), but maybe one of your readers would enjoy, and get some use out of, this list of things to do in the area of the Black Hills. It happens to be our home base (we are full-time RVers for going on 9 years now). Here’s the list:

Things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Towns to visit:
Rapid City
Hill City
Hot Springs

Reptile Gardens
Bear Country
Black Hills Playhouse
Mount Rushmore
Crazy Horse Memorial
1880 Train
Hot Springs Mammoth Digs
Flying T Chuckwagon Supper Show
Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper Show
Circle B Ranch Chuckwagon
Supper Show
Museum of Geology
Journey Museum
South Dakota Air and Space Museum
Thunderhead Falls

Sylvan Lake
Stockade Lake
Sheridan Lake
Pactola Reservoir

Wind Cave
Jewel Cave
Crystal Caverns
Black Hills Caverns
Rushmore Caves

Michelson Trail (rails to trails)
Bad Lands National Park
Custer State Park
Custer State Park Wildlife Loop
Spearfish Canyon Road
Needles Highway
Iron Mountain Road
Mustang ranch
Roughlock Falls
Devil’s bathtub


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: