Hit the road and experience the National Parks and Monuments that the Black Hills have to offer.
Home of the internationally recognizable Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Crazy Horse Memorial and Badlands National Park, the Black Hills are also home to twelve other national/state parks and rec areas. With enough to see and do just in these treasures alone, this four day itinerary of Black Hills Parks and Monuments should serve only as a start. Trust us.
Badlands National Park Region
Badlands National Park is one of six national park units in the Black Hills region and in case you haven’t seen it, it is 244,000 acres of other-worldly landscape. The Badlands are a wonderland of bizarre, colorful spires and pinnacles, massive buttes and deep gorges. A land ravaged by wind and water for so many eons that it has become a photographer’s paradise, the wildest artist’s dreamscape. While Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway cuts through the heart of this wonder, one of the best ways to experience it is to get out of the car and traverse the mind-blowing terrain…and there are many trails to choose from. Notch, Door, Window and the Fossil Trail can be enjoyed by most all.
Conveniently, be sure to check out the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, located right outside the Badland’s east entrance on I-90 at Exit 131. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is one of the nation’s newest national park areas. The park was established by Congress in 1999 and consists of a nuclear missile silo and launch control facility. From this seemingly isolated patch of Midwestern prairie, United States Air Force officers could have launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) at targets in the Soviet Union. With the simple turn of keys, nuclear missiles would have been exchanged with the Soviet Union, making real one of the greatest fears of the 20th Century, nuclear war.
- Stop at Wall Drug for quarky souvenirs, amazing maple glazed donuts and rather randomly, a world-class collection of western American paintings.
- Find the ladder on Notch Trail which shortly after should be the turnaround for hiking parties with small children or elderly as the trail becomes more difficult thereafter.
- Say Hi to the Russian satellites from the Launch Facility Delta-09 (missile silo) which is located south of I-90 just off Exit 116. It is approximately 15 miles west of park headquarters. They still monitor the site frequently to make sure we’re holding up our end of the agreement.
- Enjoy the Grass – The National Grasslands Visitor Center is located in Wall and this surprising little center focuses on interpreting and providing information on the National Grasslands, which is groovier than it comes across.
Mount Rushmore/Custer State Park Region
Located a pleasant half-hour drive from Rapid City, the Black Hills' regional hub, start your day at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, America’s Shrine to Democracy. It is the very obvious reason that brings most visitors to the Black Hills with just over two million recreational visitors each year. Mount Rushmore is an amazing public sculpture that just happens to be worked from a mountain because that’s how we roll out here.
Which leads to another marvel that some may not know of until they get to the Black Hills, and that is the larger and on-going mountain carving at Crazy Horse Memorial, some 15-20 minutes down the road from Mount Rushmore. When finished, Crazy Horse Memorial will be 641 feet long and 563 feet high because, again and in response to Mount Rushmore, that’s how we roll out here. To give that some perspective, the heads at Mount Rushmore are each 60 feet high. Workers completed the carved 87½-foot-tall Crazy Horse face in 1998, and have since focused on thinning the remaining mountain to form the 219-foot-high horse’s head.
Also nearby is 71,000-acre Custer State Park, which is the mighty work of nature and recently was named as one of the ten best places in the world for wildlife viewing. The park is home to one an amazing buffalo herd whose ancestors freely roamed the plains and today, they roam the entire park. Custer State Park is more than just a world-famous wildlife preserve if you will, it also boasts some amazing trails, one of the nation’s best Scenic Byways, great fishing in picturesque mountain lakes and all sorts of interpretive programs for kids, parents and elders. The scenery and offerings often mistake people in forgetting that it is the crown jewel of South Dakota’s park system.
All the three parks and monuments are connected by some the of the most scenic drives in America, including Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road, along with dozens of attractions like the 1881 Courthouse Museum in the nearby town of Custer, and or many others in neighboring Hill City and Keystone. There are also countless wineries, breweries, boutiques and galleries to explore.
- Check out the Artist Residence at Crazy Horse Memorial for a peak into the life of the memorial’s famed sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski.
- Take a different point of view and check out Mount Rushmore from different vantage points and framings along the short Presidential Trail. Great photo opportunities are found all along.
- Hear 1,300 thundering Buffalo at the Annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup at the end of September each year. 2015 will be the 50th Buffalo Roundup and has garnered even more national attention for this truly western Black Hills event.
- Add to your collection and head into Hill City for some amazing works of art from one of the many high end art galleries or add to your wine collection with some bottles from one of the local wineries.
Wind Cave National Park | Jewel Cave National Monument
Edge to edge, the Black Hills are full of state and national park units, attractions, wildlife and so much to see and do. It’s also home to some of the world’s largest cave systems with Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument.
Currently over 142.75 miles of passages have been mapped in Wind Cave making it the third longest cave in the U.S. and the sixth longest cave in the world. Wind Cave has few stalactites and stalagmites, but many unusual formations and a variety of minerals are found in the cave. The cave is well known for its outstanding display of boxwork, an unusual cave formation composed of thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs.
Along with this massive cave, Wind Cave National Park also features 28,295 acres of mixed-grass prairie, Ponderosa pine forest and wildlife. The park’s mixed-grass prairie is one of the few remaining and is home to native wildlife such as bison, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes and prairie dogs.
With 173 miles of explored passageways, Jewel Cave National Monument ranks as the second longest cave in the U.S. and the third longest cave in the world. The cave was discovered at the turn of the century by brothers passing through Hell Canyon and guided cave tours provide opportunities for viewing this pristine cave system filed with calcite crystals and other wonders such as stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, frostwork, boxwork, flowstone and hydromagnesite balloons.
In the early summer, Jewel Cave’s more popular Scenic Tour is offered daily at 9:20 a.m., 10:00 a.m., 10:40 a.m., 11:20 a.m., 12:40 p.m., 1:20 p.m., 2:00 p.m., 2:40 p.m., 3:20 p.m., and 3:40 p.m. The shorter Discovery Tour is offered daily at 9:35 a.m., 11:35 a.m., 1:35 p.m., and 4:25 p.m.
Also, in this neighborhood you’ll find Angostura State Recreation Area which is a Black Hills haven for fishing, swimming, boating or a chilling on a hot mid-summer day. The reservoir has 36 miles of shoreline and some popular sandy beaches. You can also check out the near hundreds of different attractions in the Hot Springs area like Evans Plunge, the Pioneer Museum or again, many, many others!
- Take a hike or bike parts of the nationally award-winning George S. Mickelson Trail that stretches 109 miles north and south through the Black Hills. Trailheads are located all along it.
- Take a plunge in historic Cascade Falls which almost beat out historic Hot Springs for the healing retreat at the turn of the 19th century. A ghost town (barely) exists as well as a popular swimming hole.
- Find out what kind of hole you fit in on the Wind Cave Crawling Tour which is a way for visitors to explore the cave away from developed trails. During this 4-hour tour visitors will be introduced to basic and safe caving.
- Discover Gold or at least its role, good and bad, in Black Hills History. French Creek outside of Custer was where it was discovered by Gen. Custer and his crew and the Gordon Stockade is a replica of the log fortress which served as home for the first trespassing gold rushers.
Devils Tower National Monument | Spearfish Canyon and Roughlock Falls State Recreation Area
Devils Tower National Monument was the nation’s first national monument and you should head towards it in the morning via Hwy 34/24 with a picture stop at the Center of the Nation Monument in Belle Fourche. Devils Tower sits across the state line in northeast Wyoming and is a solitary, striking geologic wonder, steeped in Indian legend, that looms 1,267 feet above the tree-lined Belle Fourche River Valley. Devils Tower is known by several plains tribes as “Bears Lodge” and holds great reverence as a sacred site of worship. It also has reverence with mountain climbers as a world-class climbing destination.
After hiking the base, head back via the "Cowboy" town of Sundance - Where the legendary Sundance Kid was caught and spent time in jail. Stop and spend a night or two exploring the Bear Lodge Mountains and old west history at the Crook County Museum. Head on to the pretty northern hills town of Spearfish, SD via I-90 East. Plan to spend some time at DC Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery. A little-know fact... they are part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service! Tour the beautiful grounds and museum. Learn about the federal history of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service hatchery with a closeup view of the fish production process. Grab some fish food and watch them gather as you feed them! Continue your exploration of Spearfish Creek along Spearfish Canyon National Scenic Byway. This 22-mile stretch has three waterfalls and ample photo opportunities with the main one being Roughlock Falls State Rec Area (but don’t miss Spearfish Falls located nearby).
Its idyllic setting in a side canyon to Spearfish Canyon makes Roughlock Falls one of the Black Hills most beautiful areas and also one the area’s most-photographed spots. Created by Little Spearfish Creek, the creek flows down a spectacular chasm, then tumbles off a 50-foot limestone ledge in a series of lacy cascades. It is a day-use area only but no park entrance fee or permit is required.
And lastly, catch a sunset atop Bear Butte or “Mato Paha” at Bear Butte State Park just north of Sturgis. This other northern Black Hills geological formation is also sacred to many American Indian tribes who come there to hold religious ceremonies for hundreds and hundreds of years. Artifacts dating back 10,000 years have been found near Bear Butte.
- Feed the Fish at the D.C. Booth Historical National Fish Hatchery in the beautiful little secret that is Spearfish City Park. Between the history and the setting, its a great stop for all ages.
- Take home a Sturgis t-shirt for anyone in your life with a little bit of rebel in them. They will gain you access into any biker bar anywhere in the world (possibly).
- Discover your inner outlaw in Historic Deadwood, home to some pretty colorful western characters, past and present. Plus July 1, 2015 it will be the new home of craps and roulette tables along with the current poker, blackjack and other games of chance.
This itinerary is a great way to experience most of the treasured parks and monuments that the Black Hills boasts but very few of the hundreds of attractions, trails and acres of outdoor wonder. Add a few more days if you want to do the most you can. If you’ve never been here before, you might be surprised.