South Dakota's Wild, Wild West.
Yes, the title of this article is making reference to the 90's classic movie Wild Wild West, starring Will Smith, but this article is focused on the great adventures to be had in South Dakota, which conveniently is mostly found on the western side of this Great Plains state.
South Dakota is a location that isn't typically found on top ten destination lists, but it is still a great place for the outdoor adventure seeker to visit. There are many places to go, especially in the western portion of the state. Sad to say, the eastern portion of the state does not offer as many cool scenic places to see. It is more filled with farming fields and flat grassy fields for as far as the eye can see. Though there are a few spots on the eastern side of South Dakota, such as the Palisades State Park.
Once you cross into the western half of this underpopulated state (which occurs at the Missouri River) the scenery begins to become more picturesque. I spent nearly a year living in this state, and this was by far my favorite region of the state. As you travel west, past the Missouri river, those flat and boring plains will eventually give rise to more rockier and hilly landscapes, and eventually the famous Badlands and Black Hills.
A lot of history has occurred in the Black Hills between the countless Native American tribes(over a very lengthy time span), and the United States government more recent Native American tribes between the 1700' s and 1800's. Not to mention a gold rush that occurred in the 1870's. Regardless, this area has just as much scenic value as it does historic value.
The Badlands National Park is the first area you will come across if you are coming from the eastern side of South Dakota. It is a pretty boring drive most of this way, that is overly plagued with lots of quirky and sometimes humorous signs advertising the infamous Wall Drug shopping centre/mall located in Wall, SD.
Badlands National Park
The Badlands is a rather unique area in South Dakota that has formed from wind and water erosion over a long period of time. It is made up of sedimentary rock that now forms many hills, cliffs, and buttes. The Badlands are very rugged, and are also very dry. It is a desolate environment, but still has a striking abundance of wildlife that can be found in its borders.
It is a great spot for outdoor travelers. There are other places in the world similar to this region (such as Valle de la Luna in Chile, or Cappadocia in Turkey) but it has its own unique sense about it. If you enjoy camping, hiking, watching wildlife, or observing the night sky, this is a good stop to make. Especially if you are on your way to the Black Hills, due how relatively close it is to the Black Hills. I should also mention that the Badlands are a great area to view fossils from many different eras of time, it is rich in fossilized history.
Even if you don't have much time to spend in the Badlands, there are some great scenic roads(Badlands Loop Scenic Byway) that go through the heart of the Badlands, and there are many viewing points you can stop and park at along the way. It will only take a half hour or so of your time to drive, and you'll get to see some crazy unearthly like views!
You might as well make a quick pit stop at Wall Drug while you are in the Badlands. At this point you have probably seen over 100 signs advertising this tourist attraction, regardless of the direction you are traveling from. There is nothing overly special about this shopping center that centers it's advertising on it's free ice water and 5 cent coffee, but they do have some pretty damn good freshly made donuts in the cafe. Make sure to pick up a dozen or so if you do make this side stop! They also have plenty of western themed gifts and merchandise if you are feeling like doing some shopping too.
The Black Hills
After the Badlands, you will eventually begin to see small mountains forming off in the horizon. They will look rather dark or black, which is how the Black Hills got it's name supposedly. This is where my favorite part of South Dakota begins. The Black Hills aren't going to break any records for height coming in at 7,244 above sea level at their highest point, but they are still worthy of being a great mountainous adventure destination.
There are countless things to do in this region of South Dakota. This includes camping, TONS of hiking, biking, and horse back riding trails, many parks, scenic drives, great restaurants, fishing, winter sports, casinos, and more! This is another destination that I have been to that I feel comfortable saying it has something for everyone!
I have been to the Black Hills probably 5 or 6 times in my lifespan, and have always done something different on every trip. Of course, there is the more famous destinations here such as Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, or Custer State Park, but there is still much more to do!
I think my favorite experience in the Black Hills has been the hiking, and in particular, the hike to Harney Peak which can be found nearby Lake Sylvan in Custer State Park. This is a relatively easy 3-5 hour hike (the end of the hike gets a bit strenuous) that ends at the highest point in the Black Hills.
On the top of this peak sits the Harney Peak Fire Tower, which was originally constructed in the 1930's. While it is no longer in use today, it now serves as a scenic view look out. The views from the top of this tower are amazing, and it is the probably the best location to view the surrounding area of the Black Hills.
It was a breathtaking view from inside of the tower, and the area surrounding the tower makes for a good resting point before making the trek back. Fortunately from here, its all pretty much down hill!
If you are looking for a more challenging hike to Harney Peak, try the northern trail. The trail head can be found at the Willow Creek Horse Camp. You can find more information regarding Harney Peak by clicking here.
Aside from the Harney Peak trail head, there are lots of other great hikes that start from here, as well as a scenic paved walkway that encompasses Sylvan Lake.
It makes for a great point for lunch too as there are lots of picnic tables and camping facilities around here. Lake Sylvan is definitely a picture perfect place to visit in the Black Hills and Custer State Park.
The drive up to Lake Sylvan is also pretty scenic as well. There are lots of rugged cliffs, rock pillars, and steep mountain sides filled with pine trees.
There is a fee to enter this park, along with camping here. More information regarding the details of the park can be found by clicking this link here.
If you are just in the cruising mood in your car, motorcycle, or bicycle you might as well hit up the Peter Norbec Scenic Byway. This byway will literally bring you through mountains and throughout the expansive Custer State Park. You could also check out the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway too. Both of these are great scenic tours that will give you a true glimpse into the wilderness of the Black Hills. Be forewarned, these byways are very popular in the summer months, and they will have lots of traffic. Pay special attention while driving because this area is heavily visited by motorcyclists. In August, the world famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is hosted by the nearby city of Sturgis. For you motorcycle enthusiasts, you can find more information about this rally by clicking here.
Aside from the great outdoor activities that can be found in the Black Hills, there is also the nightlife and gambling experience that can be found in cultural and historic Deadwood, SD. Deadwood is a town that originally was founded during the Black Hills gold rush. The town grew quickly, and was known for its lawlessness. It was a perfect example of a 'old west' town that you now see in western movies. Crime and prostitution were common here during the gold rush days. The town eventually settled down from its rough character after the gold rush, but it would forever be known for it's grittier past. Now it is a popular destination for all of the history that occurred when it was established, not to mention a major gambling and nightlife hub for western South Dakota.
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your take on life, there is no more Al Swearengen running the now lawful streets of Deadwood. Though stories of his past and the Gem Variety Theater in Deadwood are still remembered to this day. If you wish to get a glimpse into what this past Deadwood may have looked like, try watching the renowned HBO series Deadwood. It really is a great, but far too short series about the corrupt town of Deadwood.
Deadwood is a interesting little town, and it still has an aurora about it that makes it feel like it's straight out of the old west. While it now has fancy hotels, resorts, and restaurants, it still keeps somewhat true to its cultural background. For those who enjoy gambling, there is plenty of it to be had in Deadwood, along with places to quench your thirst for alcohol! It is a good spot in South Dakota to go for an evening out, at the very least.
A trip to the Black Hills would not be complete without spending at least a day in Deadwood. It's a cool little town, with a lot of history. There is so much that has happened in this town during it's early days, such as it being the final resting place of the notorious Wild Bill Hickok. Definitely read into the history of this town before coming, it will truly help you visualize and picture what this place was like when it first was established.
One last mention about Deadwood, if you are a big fan of Kevin Costner, try checking out his casino and or bar/grill Diamond Lil's. Diamond Lil's is an interesting place to visit if you are a movie buff. Many of Kevin Costner's costumes from his movies are on display here. I will also disclose that the food here isn't really anything special, but it's honestly more about the cool movie memorabilia inside.
The possibilities for travelers to experience the Black Hills are nearly endless. There is no way I could possibly write about all of the various things there are to do here, nor will I ever have enough time to do everything here. I will give mention to a few other favorite establishments from my time spent in the Black Hills.
The first is the Black Hills Miner Brewery. This was a great spot to rest and recuperate after a lengthy drive. It can be found tucked away into the windy roads of the Black Hills close by Hill City and Keystone. They serve a revolving rotation of various types of craft brews. There is a beer for every type of beer drinker here though. The building itself has a cool rustic old west prospector style and decor! Not to mention, they have a great patio/porch to sit outside and enjoy your drinks too.
I spent the better part of an hour here sipping on high alcohol content beer while watching a nearby mountain top suddenly become engulfed in flames due to the drought the region had been facing at the time of my visit.
My second place I would like to recommend is for those who are addicted to caffeine. The Sturgis Coffee Company is a pretty cool coffee shop/supplier that is obviously found in Sturgis. The store has a really cool vibe, and they have a great selection for your caffeine fix. They also have some pretty cool merchandise. If you are in need of a caffeine fix, check this place out. You can visit their website by clicking here.
While you are out in the Black Hills, there is one additional national landmark just a hop, skip, and a jump away. About an hour away, across the Wyoming border you can find another classic American geological monument, Devils Tower. Devils Tower is an odd looking landmark that literally towers above the surrounding landscapes in this region of Wyoming. It sticks out like a sore thumb. It is a cool sight to see as you drive closer and closer to it, it just doesn't seem like it belongs there. There are many theories of how Devils Tower formed, including that it is a long extinct volcano. It is now commonly believed that it was formed through another geological process called igneous intrusion. I'm not going to explain igneous intrusion since I'm not a geologist.
Another interesting story of the formation of Devils tower revolves around Native American folklore. According to this, a rock grew from the ground to help some Native Americans who were trying to
escape some aggressive bears that were chasing them. The distinct rock pattern on the sides of Devils Tower are said to be the claw marks from the bears.
Devils Tower is seen as a sacred place to local Native American tribes, please be respectful of the area. Do not disturb any of the religious items that can be found within or around the park.
Devils Tower has a decent amount of hiking trails that start around the visitor center. This includes the paved trail that encompasses the monument. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to complete, but it is a good way to get some exercise after the drive here!
There are a lot of great scenic vantage points to do photography of Devils tower in the surrounding area. They also double as a great location to do night sky photography due to the low levels of light pollution in this area!
South Dakota finds itself sitting in kind of a boring area of the country, there is no doubt about that. Sorry people, the Great Plains and the Midwest aren't all that interesting! I'm generalizing here, but cornfields, some gentle rolling hills, and flat ranch land gets boring after driving on a highway for hours on end. I think that this detracts from potential visitors coming to this state to see the great beauty it does have to offer, at least somewhat.
I feel that this is especially true for foreign visitors, as it is a difficult region of the country to access if you only have a minimal amount of time. If you are from another country and are traveling the United States, do your best to try and make this one of your destinations. I feel that you would get more of a sense of the United States as a whole by visiting here versus New York City or some similar big city.
I think it deserves to be a spot that isn't overlooked by tourists, whether they live in the United States, or are from another country. There is so much to see and explore on the western side of this state. I would not have any hesitation on recommending people to visit here. There is something for everyone in this region of the state. Its such a neat area filled with lots of cool geological formations, great scenic drives, and cultural history.
While there is stuff to do in the Black Hills during all parts of the year, I think that spring, fall, and summer are the best times to visit. Obviously, the summer months here will be the most bustling with tourists. So prepare in advance!
Cattleman's Club Steakhouse: If you find yourself traveling near Pierre, SD (center of state), do yourself a favor and check out this delicious steakhouse. I have been to a lot of steakhouses, and this one is easily one of my favorites. They have a couple other locations in South Dakota and Minnesota, but I've been told they aren't quite the same. For what South Dakota somewhat lacks in good ethnic food, they more than make up for it with great steakhouses and burger joints. Also in Pierre, there is another great donut shop, simply called The Donut Shop. They have odd hours, but the donuts (donut holes in particular) here are delicious.
Also avoid going to the Hop Scotch Club (or as locals call it, The Hop) in Fort Pierre if you have any self decency. You can thank me later.
The Corn Palace of Mitchell, SD: Touted as the world's only corn palace. This honestly would be very near to the top of my list of the world's lamest tourist attractions, but hey, some people enjoy these corny gimmicky attractions.
More photos from South Dakota