Road Trips and Destinations

Camping Road Trip among the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota


More from Outdoor Living Newsletter June Outdoor Living Newsletter
 

Badlands National Park

If you haven't been to South Dakota, there are two big reasons why you should go; the Badlands and the Black Hills. These two places are unlike anywhere else in the world. Coming from the flat and seemingly endless prairies east of South Dakota, you will no doubt be taken by surprise when you see these dark and rugged landscapes suddenly rising before you. The Badlands are what you imagine the surface of Mars to be like with ridges, spires and canyons stretching as far as the eye can see. Black Hills so-called because of their dark appearance from a distance, as they are covered in trees, are home to the tallest peaks of continental North America east of the Rockies. Their majesty is almost unreal; it's no wonder that these places are sacred to the Native Americans who live here.

While the prospect of exploring the Black Hills and the Badlands should be enough to motivate you to take a road trip to South Dakota, there are other reasons that could entice you to go. This place is rich in Native American history and culture; it is where Lakota war chief Crazy Horse fought for the freedom of his people. It bore witness to a gold rush in 1876 that established the mining town of Deadwood and transformed the area into a frontier of the American Wild West. It is home to Mount Rushmore, one of the most important icons of American democracy andif that it is not enough, it holds one of the richest mammal fossil beds in the world.

There are so many things you can see and do while visiting the Black Hills and the Badlands of South Dakota. A road trip through here is one you should take at least once in your life.

When to Go

You can visit the Black Hills and the Badlands any time of the year. However, the best time is during May, June or September. The weather is much milder and more pleasant then. Plus, you won't have to deal with the summer heat and the summer crowds. Especially avoid August unless motorbikes are also your passion. It gets very crowded and noisy as thousands of motorbike enthusiasts descend on the Black Hills for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Besides, temperatures can rise up to 100°F in July/August. It can be very cold here in winter, on the other hand, although the climate is too dry for any thick snowfall.

How to Get There

For this road trip, we recommend starting at the town of Wall. You can reach Wall by driving along the Interstate 90 and taking the 109 and 110 exits. South Dakota doesn't have an extensive public transportation system, so you'll really have to do a lot of driving in your own vehicle. If you're going to fly, the nearest airport is in Rapid City, which is 50 miles away from Wall.

How Long Should the Trip Be?

Ideally, a week would not be enough to enjoy the Black Hills, the Badlands and all the attractions in this area of South Dakota in their entirety. But if you don't have a lot of time, you can check out the most important stop points in this place in four days. You can start your road trip at the town of Wall and end it at the city of Spearfish.

What to See and Do

The Black Hills and the Badlands present a lot of wonderful opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. You can go hiking and explore the backcountry, where you're sure to encounter wildlife. If traveling by foot doesn't appeal to you, you can conduct your exploration by bike or by horseback. There are also great trails for ATVs and motorbikes here. Visit here in winter and you can ride snowmobiles or go cross-country skiing. If you're interested in prehistory and geology, you can go on fossil hunts or study the unique rock formations. The night sky in this area is dark enough for stargazing. And, of course, the Black Hills and Badlands region is a photographer's dream.

There are many scenic byways in the area. The Black Hills Parkway, for instance, will take you to the heart of the Black Hills. The Badlands Loop Road will show you the most dramatic landscapes of The Badlands. If you're not scared of dark and dank places, take a guided tour at Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument. And then, there are places of cultural significance that you must see in this region. Among these are Mount Rushmore, the City of Deadwood, Black Hills Mining Museum and Crazy Horse Memorial. There are also quaint roadside stops that you shouldn't miss like Wall Drugstore.

Itinerary: Four-Day Visit - Wall to Spearfish - About 332.8 Miles

Day One - Wall to Rapid City - 120 miles

Start early as we have a full day planned for you.

  1. Visit Wall Drugstore. It's hard not to miss Wall Drugstore. Around 300 miles of the I-90 is shot with its billboards, compelling you to drop by and have a look. And South Dakota's most famous pit stop is indeed worth looking at. There are all sorts of Americana for sale here, from sheriff badges to cowboy boots to Founding Fathers souvenirs. You can also get a cup of coffee for a nickel and enjoy it with the locals who love hanging out here. Spend an hour or so browsing the goodies, shopping and socializing.
  2. Drive East to Exit 131 on the I-90. Head South 2 miles on Rte. 240 and stop by Prairie Homestead in Philip. The Prairie Homestead is a sod-and-log home that belonged Edgar and Alice Brown, who homesteaded 160 acres near the Badlands in 1909. South Dakota was one of the last territories to be homesteaded, and homesteading played a huge part in the history and development of this state. At that time, though, pioneers had very few building materials available to them, so they made their homes out of sod bricks. Sod-and-log houses, however, are vulnerable to the elements. The Browns' house is one of the last few remaining intact. At Prairie Homestead, you'll get a glimpse of what pioneer life was like in South Dakota through an interpretative walking tour. It's like living the story of Little House on the Prairie.
  3. Spend the rest of the day at Badlands National Park. Badlands National Park covers some 244,000 acres of mixed prairie land, which is considered a rare habitat in North America. This National Park is home to numerous species of prairie wildlife, including bison, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep and the endangered black-footed ferret. It is also a place of deep historical and cultural significance. The National Park has one of the richest deposits of mammal fossils in the world. Half of the Park is co-managed by the Oglala Lakota Tribe; the Stronghold (South) Unit of the Park is the location of one of their sacred places. Key highlights not to miss:
    1. First stop is Big Badlands Overlook for your first view of "The Wall" from above. As far as they eye can see are the tiered cliffs of the Badlands dropping to the lower prairie.
    2. Drive onto Windows Overlook which serves as the trailhead for three short, fun nature trails. The Door Trail is a round-trip trek on a boardwalk that will take you to The Door, the famous natural break in the Badlands Wall and into a Mars or lunar like landscape. The round-trip hike is 3/4 of a mile long. If you're feeling adventurous, you can pass beyond the Door. However, the trail past the Door is rough and unmaintained. The Window Trail, a 1/4 of a mile round trip paved trail takes you to a natural window overlooking a deep canyon. Lastly, the Notch Trail is a challenging 1.5-mile round-trip hikethat takes you up a ladder and along the side of a gully to a break in the Wall. The reward is a marvelous view of the White River Valley. Notch Trail can be tricky, especially on rainy days; it's best not to venture on this trail if you're scared of heights. Allow 2-3 hours to hike all three trails.
    3. Drive onto the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is not just a place where you can get information on the Park's ranger programs and activities. It also features exhibits on the ecology and paleontology of the Badlands, as well as its cultural history. Check out the film Land of Stone and Light at the Visitor Center's theater.
    4. Next stop is the Fossil Exhibit Trail is a 0.25-mile round-trip stroll on a boardwalk that features fossil replicas and exhibits of now extinct creatures that once roamed the area.
    5. Drive leisurely Westalong the scenic Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) for about 15 miles. You'll pass a series of scenic overlooksof Badlands National Park, particularly the Badlands Wall. The Badlands Wall is the heart of the Park, as well as its most recognized landmark. It is an eerily beautiful series of buttes that extends a hundred miles and features geographic layers colored purple, red and orange. There are a number of overlooks along the Badlands Loop Road where you can stop and admire the ruggedness of the Wall. The most spectacular of these overlooks are Yellow Mounds Overlook and Pinnacles Overlook.
    6. Turn left onto Sage Creek Rim Road. Gravel Sage Creek Rim Road is a lot rougher than Badlands Loop Road, however it's fine for regular cars and RVs providing it's open. You need to check with the rangers at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center as it is often closed during rainy days and thunderstorms. The views here are not dominated by the sharp cliffs and escarpments making up the Wall. Rather, this road will take you to the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, the best place to see the wildlife in the Park such a bison and pronghorn. Make sure you visit Roberts Prairie Dog Town, an old homestead that is now home to a large colony of prairie dogs.
  4. When Sage Creek Rim Road meets Rte. 44, turn right and head north west towards Rapid City. This stretch of road will take you through beautiful Buffalo Gap National Grassland and Cheyenne River Valley prairie with views of the Black Hills. Spend the night at a campground or RV park near Rapid City.

Day Two - Rapid City to Custer State Park - About 60 miles

  1. Drive to Bear Country USA by taking Mt. Rushmore Road/ U.S. Highway 16 towards Keystone for about 11 miles.Bear Country USA has dubbed itself as "the home of the largest collection of privately owned black bears in the world". The three-mile drive-through safari will take you up close and personal with not just black bears but also a wide variety of animal species native to North America,such as buffalo, cougars, reindeer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, wolves and bobcats. After the drive-through stretch your legs in the walking area to see bear cubs and wolf pups. Spend at least an hour and a half on this safari.
  2. Continue South on U.S. Highway 16 for about 18 miles to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Mount Rushmore is one of the most popular icons of American democracy. It features the busts of four US presidents - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt - carved on the face of the granite mountain. Originally conceived to attract more tourists to South Dakota, Mount Rushmore draws in more than three million visitors annually. Stop for an hour or so at Mount Rushmore to learn about the amazing engineering feat and to enjoy the view of the sun shining upon those carved granite faces. It is also a great vantage point for photographing the Black Hills. Allow 1.5 hours minimum.
  3. Spend the rest of the day at Custer State Park. If you have a large RV you'll need to drive East along Rte. 40, then West along Rte. 36 and U.S. 16A to the park. The quickest route along Iron Mountain Road has several tunnels with 12ft height and 13ft width restrictions. Otherwise, continue South towards Custer State Park along Iron Mountain Road, part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. Make sure you have your camera ready as there are three tunnel openings placed to frame Mt. Rushmore and make for great photos. Another marvelous feature on Iron Mountain Road is a pair of pigtail bridges.Custer State Park is South Dakota's first and largest state park. A famous herd of bison roam here freely, along with elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, mountain lions, deer and feral burros.Drive the Wildlife Loop Road to see the animals living in Custer State Park, most notably the bison herd, the prairie dogs and the popular Begging Burros. If you're lucky, you'll also encounter elk, deer and maybe a mountain lion. Wildlife Loop Road is a roadway that twists through the prairie and the ponderosa-covered hills.
  4. Spend the night at a campground on Custer State Park or at a campground or RV park nearby.

Day Three - Custer State Park to Custer - About 76 miles

  1. Just South of Custer State Park on Rte. 87 is Wind Cave National Park. Underneath the prairies of the Black Hills lies the sixth longest cave system in the world - Wind Cave. Wind Cave has around 139 miles of discovered passageways, and its end has yet to be determined. Aside from the seeming endlessness of this cave, it is also considered to be one of the world's densest cave systems, with three-dimensional labyrinths. It is also noted for its boxwork formations, one of the rarest calcite formations found in a cave. It's no surprise why Wind Cave NP is the first National Park in the US established to protect a cave. You have three options for exploring Wind Cave:
    1. The Garden of Eden Cave Tour is an hour-long ranger-guided tour that will take you through a garden-like chamber filled with boxwork, flowstone, frostwork and cave popcorn formations. The hike is 1/4 mile long and is the least strenuous of the available guided tours in Wind Cave.
    2. The Natural Entrance Cave Tour will take you exploring Wind Cave's natural entrance. There you will see where the cave is discovered and how Wind Cave got its name. This tour is somewhat strenuous, as you will have to climb down 300 steps. The tour half a mile long and lasts an hour and 15 minutes.
    3. The Fairgrounds Cave Tour is the most difficult walking tour in Wind Cave. The half-mile trek is 90 minutes long and involves a lot of climbing up and down long flights of stairs. It explores the upper and middle levels of the cave, where boxwork formations are abundant.

    Wind Cave National Park also offers two specialty tours of the cave. One is the Candlelight Tour where you get to visit an undeveloped portion of the cave and see the cave's interior as its early discoverers have seen it - with only the help of candlelight. The other is the Wild Cave Tour, which will introduce you to the wild side of caving. You will be doing a lot of crawling and climbing in the four-hour duration of this tour. Aside from the cave tours, Wind Cave National Park also has 30 miles of hiking trails around the cave, where you get to see bison, elk, pronghorn, prairie dogs and other animals and birds native to the prairie. Plan to spend a minimumof two hours at this National Park.
  2. Continue South on U.S. 385 to the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs. The Mammoth Site is one of the most important fossil treasures, not just of South Dakota but of the whole world. It is the remains of a collapsed karst sinkhole where Colombian and woolly mammoths were buried thousands of years ago. To date, 59 mammoth remains have been unearthed. Today the Mammoth Site is a museum and a research center. Here you can take a guided tour, view fossil exhibits and watch geologists excavate the burial site. A visit to the Mammoth Site should take around an hour or so.
  3. Retrace your steps North along U.S. 385 and continue 30 miles until you reach U.S. 16. Turn left and head West 12 miles to Jewel Cave National Monument. Jewel Cave is, to date, the third longest cave system in the world. It has 166 miles of mapped passageways, and exploration of the cave is still on-going. This cave got its name from the jewel-like calcite formations and spar crystals covering the cave walls. It is also one of the few places where the rare hydromagnesite balloon formation is found. There are two ranger-guided tours through Jewel Cave available. One is the Scenic Tour, an 80-minute and half-mile tour that will allow you to see the crystalline formations Jewel Cave is famous for. The other tour is the Discovery Tour, where you will go to one large room in the cave and listen to a 20-minute ranger talk.
  4. Spend the night at a campground or RV park near Custer.

Day Four - Custer to Spearfish - 90 miles

  1. Head North on US-16E / US-385N to Crazy Horse Memorial. Crazy Horse Memorial is the Lakota Tribe's response to Mount Rushmore. It is as yet an unfinished sculpture of the Lakota war chief Crazy Horse carved on the face of Thunderhead Mountain. Here you can watch engineers and their crew at work on the sculpture. You can also visit the Indian Museum of North America, located within the compound, and view exhibits highlighting Native American culture. Plan to spend a minimum of an hour here.
  2. Continue on US-16E / US-385N for 10 miles to Hill City. Hill City is the "Heart of the Hills," a name bestowed upon it to describe its proximity to the geographical center of the Black Hills. The city is a center for the arts in South Dakota and is also where Sue, the largest and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever discovered, was found. Hill City is also the access point to Sheridan Lake Recreation Area. Visit Sheridan Lake and hike a portion of the historic Flume Trail. Flume Trail runs along the old flume bed that fed water to the mines near Rockerville.
  3. Take US-385N for 36 miles to Deadwood. Deadwood started out as an illegal mining settlement in the 1870s. In the olden days of the Wild West, Deadwood gained a reputation for lawlessness, a haven for professional gamblers, outlaws and prostitutes. Those romanticized days produced folk heroes like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Today, the entire city is listed in the National Historic Register. Go sightseeing here for an hour or two and admire the city's unique Victorian architecture. While you're there, stop by Mount Moriah Cemetery, the final resting place of those frontiersmen and women who made Deadwood the city it is today.
  4. Drop by the Black Hills Mining Museum in Lead, 3 miles East of Deadwood. The gold rush made a tremendous impact on the history, culture and development of the communities in the Black Hills/Badlands area. At the Black Hills Mining Museum, you will see exhibits depicting the Black Hills mining heritage. The museum also runs a 45-minute guided tour that simulates mining for gold as it was done in the days of the gold rush. You can even pan for gold and bring home a sample.
  5. Head East along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. The 40-minute drive through this 20-mile highway will take you close to the narrow walls of Spearfish Canyon. You'll also be driving through forests of ponderosa, spruces and aspens, and you'll get to encounter some more of the native prairie wildlife along the way. While cruising down this byway, stop by Roughlock Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.
  6. Conclude your road trip at Spearfish. You can also spend the night at a campground or RV park nearby.

Tips for Road Trips among the Black Hills and Badlands

Here are a few tips to keep in mind to make your road trip among the Badlands and Black Hills safer and more enjoyable.

  1. Always check on the weather before heading out. The temperature and weather can change suddenly in the Badlands/Black Hills region, and these weather chances will greatly affect road conditions and your overall experience of this road trip.
  2. Drive slowly. Some roadways here, like the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, have a strict speed limit. Driving slowly will also keep you safe, because some roadways here are gravel, while some have sharp twists and turns. Some roadways can become slippery as ice in wet weather.
  3. Always dress appropriately for the weather, especially when you're visiting in summer. Summer can be very hot and dry in the Badlands and Black Hills with temperatures reaching the 90s, so it would be a good idea to wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and a hat to protect your skin from the searing sun. Don't forget to put on sunblock as well.
  4. Bring lots of drinking water. Exploring the Badlands and Black Hillsis thirsty work. Protect yourself from dehydration and heat exhaustion while you're outdoors by drinking water.
  5. Wear sturdy, low-heeled and rubber-soled shoes or boots. Not only is these kinds of footwear comfortable for hiking, they will also protect you from cactus spines, sharp rocks, and maybe rattlesnakes. The terrain in this area is also rough, so the appropriate footwear will keep you from getting injured in case you slip or fall.
  6. You won't always get a cellphone signal in the area. Thus, bring a GPS device with you in case you get lost.

The Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota is a place of rugged beauty that you will not find anywhere else in the world. The sights here are majestic and, in some ways, surreal. The opportunity to behold this beauty with your own eyes and experience the rich history and heritage of the area is an opportunity that you should not miss.

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Photos

Wild West card game at Walls Drugstore, SD
Wild West card game at Wall Drugstore
Wacky playground attractions at Wall Drugstore, SD
Wacky playground attractions at Wall Drugstore
Mars like landscape seen from The Door at Badlands National Park
Mars like landscape on the Door Trail
Climbing the ladder on Notch Trail, Badlands National Park
Climbing on Notch Trail
Yellow Mounds, Badland National Park
Yellow Mounds
Prairie Dog keeping a lookout, Badlands National Park
Prairie Dog keeping a lookout
Black Bear at Bear Country USA
Spot wildlife up close on the Safari Drive at Bear Country USA
Wolf cubs playing, Bear Country USA
Wolf cubs playing, Bear Country USA
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota
Mount Rushmore
Pigtail Bridge, Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
Pigtail Bridge, Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
Fossilized Gastropod, Wind Cave National Park
Fossilized Gastropod, Wind Cave National Park
Mammoth bones being excavated at Mammoth Site, Hot Springs, SD
Mammoth bones at Mammoth Site Hot Springs
Organ pipe like stalacites at Jewel Cave National Monument
Organ pipe like stalacites at Jewel Cave National Monument
Miniature sculpture of Crazy Horse showing what the final mountain sculpture shown behind will look like when finished
Miniature sculpture of Crazy Horse showing what the final one will look like
 

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