Follow in the footsteps of rugged Wild West pioneers and explorers as you wind your way through one of America’s most unique and awe-inspiring landscapes. From sky-high mountains to plummeting canyons, this road trip through western South Dakota is brimming with world-class outdoors adventures, endless history and some of the finest wildlife viewing opportunities on the planet.
Nestled on the edge of Custer State Park, the small town of Custer is your jumping-off point for all things outdoors. For paddling and fishing, there’s nearby Sylvan and Stockade Lakes, but those looking to avoid the crowds should head a bit farther east to Center Lake. Surrounded by rugged mountain scenery and boasting a great beach for swimming and picnics, it’s the perfect place to cool off after a hike. Of course, the main draw here is the state park, where wildlife encounters are a regular occurrence. Take the 18-mile Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway for a chance to see herds of buffalo, deer, antelope and elk. Go slow along the loop’s southeastern tip for a rendezvous with the park’s famed docile donkeys.
2) Hill City
Drive 14 miles • 19 minutes
About 15 miles north, Hill City is a history lover’s paradise with easy access to one of the country’s most memorable landmarks. Just minutes away from downtown, Mount Rushmore towers above the surrounding landscape, a looming shrine to democracy. The process of creating the iconic sculpture is explored at the on-site Sculptor’s Studio, but the best way to understand the true scale of the project is with a hike on the 0.6-mile Presidential Trail that gets up close and personal with 60-foot-tall presidential faces. The nearby Crazy Horse Memorial shines a light on another side of American history. Still a work in progress, the sculpture celebrates the Oglala Lakota warrior, as well as the independent spirit of the nation’s Native Americans.
Rafter J Bar Ranch Camping Resort • Hill City, SD – (605) 574-2527
3) Rapid City
Drive 27 miles • 34 minutes
Just outside the national forest area, Rapid City serves up a vibrant gallery scene, hip cafes and plenty of family-friendly attractions, without sacrificing easy access to the outdoors. After checking out downtown, head to the Skyline Wilderness Area, a 150-acre green space with miles of trails catering to hikers and bicyclists. The Skyline Trail winds its way past tall ponderosa trees, petrified tree stumps and an historic amphitheater area, before leading to the Stonewall Overlook, which offers expansive views of the Black Hills. Fossil hunters should head to the highly recommended Journey Museum and Learning Center, which tells the region’s geologic and cultural history through hands-on exhibits. Known as the “City of Presidents,” Rapid City’s streets feature life-size bronze statues of former U.S. chief executives, from Washington to Obama.
Rushmore Shadows Resort • Rapid City, SD – (800) 231-0425
Drive 29 miles • 29 minutes
Thirty minutes north on I-90, the fun-loving town of Sturgis awaits. Fill up on donuts and coffee like a local at Weimer’s Diner before a hike to the top of Bear Butte, a National Historic Landmark and sacred area to a number of the area’s Native American tribes. The 1.85-mile hike to the top is moderately steep, but the amazing, and seemingly endless, views of the Black Hills are worth the effort. However, for the first ten days of August, the volume gets turned way up in Sturgis as over 500,000 bikers descend on the town for one of the worlds largest motorcycle rallies. Live music, food, contests and a whole lot of parties follow, as the town becomes Harley heaven.
Drive 22 miles • 21 minutes
Home to some of the world’s best fly-fishing, this small town along the Black Hills’ northern edge is a bucket-list stop for anglers. There are numerous rivers and creeks to choose from, but Spearfish Creek, which runs through Spearfish Canyon, dazzles with its beauty. The Little Spearfish and Hanna Creek are also great for hooking big wild brook trout. Take a spin on the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, a 22-mile route that winds between limestone cliffs, waterfalls and breathtaking vistas. The views from Bridal Veil and Roughlock Falls are especially noteworthy.