IT’S A SHAME how the Midwest gets pigeonholed as “flyover country.” Many people probably picture endless farmland crisscrossed by rural roads with questionable cell service. That may be true of some parts of the region, but certainly not of South Dakota’s Black Hills and Badlands.

What you’ll find here is rugged, diverse terrain reminiscent of the Great Smoky Mountains one moment and the painted deserts of the Southwest in another. Here the wildlife roams free, rocks form cathedrals into the sky, and you walk on the roofs of caves.

This is the opposite of flyover country. This is a world worth a much deeper dive, and one you’ll only see in the Black Hills and Badlands.


Badlands National Park

In southwestern South Dakota lies 244,000 acres of geological wonder formally called Badlands National Park. The simple processes of deposition and erosion, carried out over millions of years, have led to one of the more amazing sights this continent has to offer, and possibly one of the most believe-it-when-you-see-it national parks.
Photo: faungg's photos


Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Possibly the most famous monument in the entire US, Mount Rushmore soars nearly 6,000 granite feet into the air and attracts over 2 million visitors annually. Pro tip: You can get in early before the Visitor Center opens (though you should wait until it does to check it out, too) to avoid the crowds and get a silent moment with the massive feat of engineering in front of you.
Photo: FRE Lens


The fantasy world of spires in Black Hills National Forest

When it comes to hiking, the Cathedral Spires Trail is pure other-worldliness. Find the trailhead off of Highway 87 north of Custer; the hike is 1.5 miles one way. And a note for climbers: There are established routes up several of the spires, and guides to lead you.
Photo: Bryon Lippincott


Jewel Cave National Monument

Over 180 miles long, Jewel Cave—the centerpiece of Jewel Cave National Monument—is the third longest cave in the entire world. Calcite crystals give the cave its name, and visitors can wander along different sections, sometimes lit only by candlelight.
Photo: Midwest National Parks


Spearfish Canyon

Carved out over the millennia by the deceptively powerful Spearfish Creek, Spearfish Canyon is a deep but narrow gorge over 180 miles long in the northern Black Hills. To check it out, drive US-14A, a State and National Forest Scenic Byway, which winds through the canyon.
Photo: Justin Meissen


South Dakota's innumerable bison

South Dakota's first and largest state park, Custer State Park covers 71,000 acres and is home to incredibly diverse flora and fauna. Here over a thousand bison freely roam—and sometimes cause traffic jams. The best time to see them is during the annual Buffalo Roundup in September, the one time of year here where you'll swear you're experiencing an earthquake.
Photo: Thomas


Harney Peak

This is the view from Harney Peak—the highest point in South Dakota, in the Black Hills, and the highest summit east of the Rockies. From the Sylvan Lake trailhead in Custer State Park, it's a 7-mile round trip to the summit at 7,244 feet.
Photo: Jonas and Julia


The Black Hills Central Railroad

Between Hill City and Keystone, South Dakota, runs the 1880 Train, a vintage 19th-century steam train operated by the Black Hills Central Railroad. Passengers ride for 20 miles past some of the region's most impressive scenery.
Photo: Drew Jacksich


Crazy Horse Memorial

Though still under construction, many locals consider the Crazy Horse Memorial as impressive as Mount Rushmore (maybe it has to do with the lack of tourists, or maybe the fact that twice a year, during the Volksmarch, visitors can walk out on the arm). The mountain monument depicts Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. It's being carved out of Thunderhead Mountain, and when completed, the head will be 1.5x the size of those of the nearby Presidents.
Photo: StockyPics


South Dakota sunflowers

The state may be full of diverse flora and fauna, but head out of Rapid City toward the Badlands and you'll be glad to see these flowers have taken over. South Dakota is home to some 617,000 acres of these golden beauties, which can be found all across the state.
Photo: jeffery wright


Snowmobiling the Black Hills

Threading through the Black Hills are 350 miles of snowmobiling trails that top out around 6,000 feet and often see five feet of packed snow every winter. The trails go through canyons, spruce forests, up to summit lookouts, and back again.
Photo: Chad Coppess for Travel South Dakota


Little Devils Tower Trail, Custer State Park

This 3-mile trail takes you to within a mile of Harney Peak, and it has some of the most spectacular views of the Cathedral Spires, the spruce-lined Southern Hills in the distance, and the peak itself. Hiking it will take you through cave-like cracks, as pictured above.
Photo: Austin Matherne


Rapid City's City of Presidents

Rapid City is sandwiched between the two namesake attractions of this region: the Black Hills to the west and the Badlands to the east. Not satisfied with its proximity to Mount Rushmore's four monumental heads carved into granite, the city has established its own tribute to the American Presidents by erecting life-size bronze statues of ALL of them around town. The City of Presidents is likely to create a strong urge to "find them all!" on your visit to Rapid City.
Photo: Les Stockton


Roughlock Falls, Spearfish Canyon

The Roughlock Falls Nature Area—part of Spearfish Canyon—is considered one of the most beautiful areas of the Black Hills. An easy 1-mile hike (handicap accessible) leads to this viewpoint.
Photo: Austin Matherne


Deadwood, South Dakota

Deadwood saw its heyday back in the late 1800s, and the town still holds onto its historical roots; in fact, in 1961 the entire town was deemed a historical landmark. This is the place to check out if you want to see what a 19th-century US Gold Rush town looked like.
Photo: Shelby Bell


George S. Mickelson Trail

What was once a railroad route is now 109 miles of walkable earth traversing the Black Hills through tunnels, bridges, and forests. Bikers, hikers, and horseback riders are all welcome along this limestone and gravel trail through ponderosa pines. Catch it at either end, in Deadwood and Edgemont, or pick it up anywhere in-between.
Photo: Bo Gordy-Stith


Sylvan Lake

The "crown jewel" of Custer State Park is Sylvan Lake—17 acres of fresh water that marks the starting point to the hike to Harney Peak and the Needles. Though there are four other lakes in the area, Sylvan is easily the most popular.
Photo: Shelby Bell


Bear Butte State Park

Bear Butte State Park near Sturgis, is home to Bear Mountain (pictured above). It's here that American Indian folklore says visions can happen and prayers can be answered. If you see prayer cloths hanging from trees, don't disturb them (or even photograph them). It's all part of the magic of this area.
Photo: Lars Ploughmann