1. There’s an otherworldly emptiness in the Badlands.
Drive for hours through the plains and soon enough the earth drops away from you, revealing what appears to be an ongoing canyon dusted in a coating of candy-colored stripes. It’s actually just the result of a million years or so of erosion and the movement of rivers — and a spectacular reminder that nothing is permanent.
2. We’ve got big smiles and microbrews in Rapid City.
Although it’s not actually the capital of South Dakota, it’s one of the most populous towns — with good reason. The cheerful residents of Rapid City like to party, with a string of festivals through the summer and welcoming bars and microbreweries dotting Main Street. Visit in June for the annual Art and Wine Festival to sample the aforementioned local drops.
3. Our Eerie cave systems last for miles.
It’s not for the claustrophobic, but the underground wilderness of the South Dakota caves system has to be seen to be believed. The Jewel Cave, for instance, is the third largest in the world and it’s passageway and tunnels are still being mapped — in addition to the 175 miles already surveyed. Nearby Wind Cave provides even more intrigue, with the howling, barometric winds at its entrance providing a namesake.
4. We’ve got a killer indie wine scene.
South Dakota’s wine region may not be famous yet but just wait — the plains wine trail is becoming more well worn each year. Highway 385 connects the wineries near Rapid City to the tasting rooms at Deadwood, with a drive through pretty meadows and forests to boot. Keep an open mind — rhubarb wine and unusual fruits are among some of the most sought after from the region.
5. Our roadside delights are the quirkiest.
Enjoy 5c coffee and the mechanical T-Rex at Wall Drug. Cruise around the 1930s-era Dinosaur Park in Rapid City. Taste samples and take in the majesty of the Corn Palace in Mitchell. Yes, driving across more than 77,000 square miles in the 5th-least populated state in the US can mean a lot of prairie views, and not a lot of people. Thankfully, enterprising folk across the state have done their best to entertain travelers with a range of, ahem, interesting sights.
6. We’ve got towering granite formations in Custer State Park.
A state park that would have gone national — if the South Dakota government hadn’t snapped it up first. Like all good attractions in the US, visitors can literally drive right up (and sometimes right through) the looming natural granite formations. And, yes, some are definitely more phallic than others.
7. Three words: The Black Hills.
The Black Hills is sacred to indigenous Lakota (also known as Sioux) people; it was the site where Black Elk famously received his “Great Vision” as described in the book Black Elk Speaks. The national monuments, cave systems, and Badlands are all in this region, but there’s a special energy to the Black Hills–the highest mountains east of the Rockies.
8. We’ve got the most badass mountainside monuments.
Yes, you can’t really visit the Mount Rushmore State, without a visit to Mount Rushmore. It really is an impressive feat of engineering to see four presidents carved into the side of a mountain, but it’s not the only monument worth visiting. The Crazy Horse Memorial in nearby Custer County depicts the legendary Lakota leader riding a horse and pointing into the distance. It’s a somewhat controversial work-in-progress standing at 563 feet high and projected that is likely to be ongoing for some time yet.