South Dakota enjoys a bounty of natural wonders rivaled by few other states. The terrain is the meeting point of arid grassland, home to buffalo, deer, elk, and big horn sheep, and the wooded Black Hills. The southwest corner of state is home to the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, and the Badlands. It’s an excellent place to hike, camp, and fish and only a six-hour ride from the Denver area. Thus, in August 2012, my wife and I, along with two friends, ventured up to South Dakota for a five-day camping trip, during which we took in the region’s historic and natural heritage.
Badlands National Park is an area of eroded bluffs and buttes surrounded by the high plains and prairie. The maze of rocky spires and domes is a strikingly beautiful array of reds, greens, and yellows. The Sioux came here to hunt buffalo, as did big-game hunters like Theodore Roosevelt. Today, the park is home to a herd of wild buffalo, bighorn sheep, prong-horned antelope, elk, and deer. A vast prairie dog town forms the cornerstone of the grassy ecosystem.
One notable feature of our visit was the dryness. Much of the Midwest is enduring a severe drought, and at every campground at which we stayed, we could not have a fire. The Badlands is also extremely windy at times, as on the Great Plains, there is little to block the wind. On the second night of our trip, there was actually a severe thunderstorm with massive bolts of lightning and heavy wind. Our REI Camp Dome 4 held up just fine, however. On nights when it isn’t raining, Badlands offers some of the best stargazing around. The lack of light pollution allows you to see stars, planets, satellites, and even the faint glow of the Milky Way (it was the first time I ever saw it). During our trip, we were also privy to a meteor shower, which sent a streak every few minutes across the sky.
The best wildlife viewing is along Sage Creek Road, a dirt road passing through the heart of the park. Not far from Sage Creek Campground, we saw a herd of bighorn sheep grazing along the side of the road and resting in the sunshine on top of some grassy hills. This was a rare treat, as in my two years of living in Colorado, I’ve only seen one of these magnificent creatures. The park’s wild buffalo herd also seems to enjoy hamming it up for the camera. We saw dozens of animals from the park’s herd as well as buffalo from the Oglala Sioux Nation, which are segregated from the park by a wire fence. I would definitely recommend when viewing buffalo that you not get out of your car. Some of the larger bulls that we saw stood up, snorting and grunting at us in displeasure as we drove by.
Wall, Deadwood, and Sturgis
Interstate 90, the longest road in the United States, is a well-paved strip of pure speed as it passes through the South Dakota towns of Wall and Rapid City. At the behest of my mother, who had stopped there in 1962, we visited Wall Drug Store. Much like South of the Border in the Carolinas, Wall Drug signs line the interstate for miles before you get into town. Wall Drug is far more than merely a pharmacy (although it is also that). The shop’s founder originally made his drug store famous by advertising free ice water to passersby. It’s since become something of a prairie tourist trap and mini-mall, boasting restaurants, an arcade, souvenir shops aplenty, a fudge shop, and even a giant mechanized T-Rex that tries to escape its pen every 12 minutes.
After visiting Wall, one of our friends recommended that we detour to the Old West town of Deadwood. Approaching Deadwood, we entered the green rolling country of the Black Hills. There were hundreds of motorcycles, as during that week, a major motorcycle rally was taking place in the town of Sturgis. We saw everything from mopeds to gorgeous chrome Harleys. The town of Deadwood sits in a narrow valley surrounded by steep hills. Through the center runs the creek where gold was discovered, inaugurating the boom that created the town. The streets are lined with casinos, hotels, restaurants, and saloons. We had lunch at the Deadwood Social Club, which was highly rated on Google Maps. You can feel the age of the place in the creaking floor boards and the fine wood, metal, and glass fixtures everywhere. The balcony offers an excellent view of historic Main Street. On our visit, we also hiked up to Mount Moriah Cemetery, where you can find the graves of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
The Black Hills is home to Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park, and Mount Rushmore National Monument. During our first night, we stayed at the Sheridan Lake campground, which is in the national forest. The campsites overlook the lake, which is popular for boating and waterskiing. Each site has a fire grate and picnic table. Running water and vault toilets are also available.
After setting up our tents, we visited two local sites. The first was the Cosmos Mystery Area. This is one odd site, though definitely worth the detour. According to the site’s management, gravitation doesn’t function normally at Cosmos. A tour guide leads you through a series of cabins built on a slant on the side of a very steep hill. Inside the cabins, the slanting produces an optical illusion that makes it appear as though gravity is pulling sideways instead of down. The guides run a series of demonstrations, during which tennis balls and water roll uphill and people hanging from a chin-up bar are pulled sideways. After getting our laughs in at Cosmos, we visited Mount Rushmore at dusk. I have to say that the monument looks exactly like the pictures. I did enjoy the outdoor pavilion lined with each of the state flags, which made for some great photo ops. We didn’t stay very long, and I’m not sure that parking should be $11, but I’m glad we saw it.
On our final day camping, we relocated south to Custer State Park, where we stayed at the Grace Coolidge campsite in the heart of the park. Custer is one of South Dakota’s most popular parks, with hot showers, log cabins, camp stores, and even restaurants. Buffalo wander along the road and through campsites as they please. At one point, a massive bull wandered past our campground, grazing its way up the roadside as campers, bikers, and day trippers snapped photos.
In the morning, we drove to Jewel Cave National Monument, west of Custer, where we had tickets for the historic lantern tour. Luckily, we had our tour guide, Beth Anne, all to ourselves. Jewel Cave is a limestone cave that is the second longest in the world. There are two routes, the Heavenly and the Dungeon. We opted for the Heavenly Route, which descends a series of steep and sometimes quite narrow ladders into the earth. It can be a little nerve-wracking if you don’t like heights, and you’d be surprised at how difficult it can be to tote a lantern and climb a ladder at the same time. Along the route, we saw incredible formations of crystals growing out of the walls. By the light of our kerosene lanterns, it was eerie and beautiful. At the maximum depth of our tour, we turned out the lanterns and sat for a few moments in total darkness. It’s amazing how your eyes will almost seem to perceive shapes and colors even in the absence of any stimulation. With our lanterns relit, we climbed back up to the start of the tour and had time to hike about half of the Dungeon route. This path requires more stooping, squatting, and duck-walking to get where you’re going.
After leaving Jewel Cave, we stopped in the small town of Custer for some more supplies. At the Custer Country Market, we picked up a pound of elk and a pound of bison meat that we used to make burgers that night. After dinner, we sat up at out campsite, listening to the sound of the creek trickling by and watching shooting stars streak across our own private slice of the night sky. Our trip had everything, and we were content to get a good night’s sleep and drive home the next morning.