The man-made wonders of the Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments were the reasons I had long wanted to visit South Dakota. But it was the natural wonders of the Black Hills and the Badlands are why my family and I are glad we finally went.
Badlands National Park
It’s hard not to think about the pioneers who trekked across the vast landscape of South Dakota in their wagon trains and wonder what sort of despair must have overcome them when they stumbled upon the Badlands.
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One look and it’s easy to see why the Lakotas named this bleak landscape of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires “mako sica.” The name translates to “land bad.” I wouldn’t have wanted to be a pioneer woman riding atop a covered wagon that carried kids, animals and all of my worldly possessions.
We arrived on an unseasonably cool summer day. Rather than the 110 degrees of a normal late July day, we had a merely warm 85-degree day. But the blazing sun and hot breeze made it easy to imagine what this desolate area must be like on a truly hot day.
After many, many hours in a car and a (dull for teens) tour of the Minute Man Missile silo, my teens were ready for some physical activity. They plunged into the Badlands National Park like a toddler runs to a sandbox. In fact, my 19-year-old son christened the Badlands the “best playground ever” as he scrambled over yet another crumbling rock.
We all got sun- and wind-burned in our hour there, but left with smiles upon our faces.
Black Hills National Forest
On the Iron Mountain Road between Mount Rushmore and the entrance to Custer State Park, those smiles rarely left our faces as we looked out upon breathtaking vistas ranging from pine-covered mountainsides to glimpses of Mount Rushmore from across the miles.
The road twists and turns along the edge of the mountain, giving my 17-year-old daughter more than a few frights as she looked out her passenger-side window… and straight down the mountainside. In three spots, the road narrows to one lane as it passes through a hollowed-out tunnel barely wide enough for our Dodge Durango SUV. I marveled as I we passed RVs along the road, wondering how they would ever fit in those tight tunnels.
The road took us to the eastern entrance of Custer State Park, home to wandering herds of Buffalo and other wildlife and the famous Needles Highway.
Needles Highway and Custer State Park
Inspired by the rolling landscapes, my teens decided that morning that they would like to spend some time horseback riding in Custer State Park. Unfortunately, the typical teenage lack of planning means they didn’t get to. The horseback rides were sold out for the day. So, instead, we rode the 200-ish horses under the hood of our Dodge Durango SUV along the Needles Highway.
Starting at the south end where it meets US 16A, we headed north along a road that offered vista after scenic vista, building to the crescendo of the Cathedral Spires and Needles Eye. (You can enter the road from either end, but if you start at Hill City and drive south, everything after the Cathedral Spires will feel rather anti-climactic.)
The 71,000-acre Custer State Park is home to a herd of free-roaming bison (as opposed to the ones that are ranch-raised to supply the meat for the yummy bison burgers served in most restaurants we visited during our trip). The group we stumbled upon along the road were just hanging out, sunning themselves on a grassy area.
They quickly drew a crowd of paparazzi tourists who seemed to disturb their sunning session. Slowly, one by one, they got up and sauntered across the road into the shade of the forest. Just as slowly, we paparazzi sauntered back to our cars, richer for the experience.
Disclosure: The South Dakota Department of Tourism provided my family’s admission to the parks; the enthusiastic endorsement is all our own.