1. Spearfish Canyon National Scenic Byway
This is a fantastic drive in any season, where you’ll find granite walls specked with Black Hills spruce and aspen, tumbling waterfalls, and rolling creeks cascading over rocky beds.
The hike to Roughlock Falls is the perfect way to connect with nature. In the fall months the reds, oranges, and yellows of the trees, combined with the deep canyon walls and surging falls, provide plenty of visual and aural stimulation.
This restored gold-mining town is a national historic landmark, with architecture dating from the late nineteenth century. Gambling is legal here, so if you enjoy the slots, or just like bantering with witty bartenders, head to one of the numerous casinos.
If history is what you’re after, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried at the Mount Moriah Cemetery. The Adam’s House Museum provides an educational perspective on Deadwood and the Black Hills.
There are also some great events in town. My favorite, the Deadwood Jam in mid-September, is an eclectic music festival showcasing blues, country, rock ‘n’ roll, and reggae. You can line up lawn chairs at the outdoor venue, crack open some drinks, and enjoy the local company.
3. Mount Rushmore
Visiting Mount Rushmore renews my patriotic spirit no matter how many times I’ve seen it. National pride swells as your eyes wander over the 60ft carvings by Gutzon Borglum and his 400 helpers. The nightly lighting ceremony, accompanied by patriotic music, is a reminder to be thankful for the privileges we enjoy as Americans.
Two miles from Mount Rushmore, Keystone is an entertaining stop. Dip into the shops and restaurants, fly down the alpine slide, or watch a wood carver transform a tree stump into a proud bald eagle or bulky bison. You can also ride a tram, pan for gold, relax on the verandas, and visit the Presidential Wax Museum.
Big Time Pizza in the Roosevelt Inn has the best pies in the region. Ask for my favorite, the Super Supreme.
5. Hill City
This hospitable town has a quaint Main Street lined with art galleries and shops full of gifts and antiques. Hill City is also home to the 1880 steam train, which winds it’s way from here to Keystone.
Near Rapid City — the gateway to the Black Hills — visit the Circle B Ranch for an authentic western experience. Eat a proper cowboy meal, bob your head to twangy country music, watch a gun fight, and go horseback riding. The Flying T Chuckwagon Supper & Show or the Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper & Show can also satisfy the little cowboy in you.
6. Crazy Horse Memorial
My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, also.
– Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear to Korczak Ziolkowski
These words set in motion the building of the Crazy Horse Memorial, 17 miles from Mount Rushmore. The head alone is planned to exceed the size of the presidents’ heads by over 20 feet.
Although Mr. Ziolkowski was twice offered $10 million from the U.S. government to fund the project, he declined it on the principle that his broader educational vision would be compromised by federal involvement.
Mr. Ziolkowski died in 1982 but his wife, Ruth, and most of their 10 children have continued the work.
7. Harney Peak
Hiking to the top of Harney Peak — the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains at 7,244 feet — is well worth the sweat. On my first attempt I was unable to make it to the top, despite encouragement from hikers coming down.
However, I vowed to make it the next time — and I did. On a clear day, you have panoramic views of South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana from the fire lookout tower.
On the way down, this time it was I who encouraged others to keep going.
8. Needles Highway
Located in Custer State Park, the Needles Highway is a road worth traveling for views of the 20-40ft granite spires reaching to the sky, backdropped by thick forest. Drive carefully — the single-lane tunnel is a little harrowing.
There are eight caves to tour in the Black Hills, two being part of national parks and six owned privately. Inside one of the largest cave systems in the world, you can expect to see unique calcite crystals, arranged in a honeycomb-like pattern, embedded in the limestone walls.
As the temperatures in the caves stay consistently in the 50s F, they’re great for cooling off when it’s too hot up top.
10. Custer State Park
At 71,000 acres, Custer State Park is a great place for wildlife viewing. You can spot hordes of buffalo grazing on the green grass from Wildlife Loop Road.
Every time I see them, I’m amazed by their size and presence and am reminded of their connection to the Lakota Nation, who relied on buffalo for survival.
I giggle at the wild burros in the park, who stick their snouts into car windows looking for food. Mountain goats, antelope, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, and wild turkeys are other animals you might be able to glimpse during a visit.
Looking for some relaxation? The lakes here are the perfect prescription for stress. Swim or fish, or simply wade around for some therapeutic calming.
Make sure you visit the South Dakota Tourism website for more on the area’s history, events, and things to do.
If you’re looking for more great itineraries and ideas in the States, check out Gateway to Pristine America: 12 Towns on the Edge of Spectacular Wilderness and Bike Touring Montana: Classic Big Sky Rides.
Why not save some money while you’re at it? Have a read of 8 Ways to Save Money on a U.S. Cross-Country Road Trip.