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  • Canoeing in Sylvan Lake, considered the crown jewel of Custer State Park
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    Custer State Park: Where the Bison Roam Free

  • The Crazy Horse Memorial, as mountain carving continues
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    Crazy Horse Memorial: More Than a Mountain

  • The faces of four former U.S. presidents carved into Mount Rushmore
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    Mount Rushmore National Memorial: Historic, Patriotic, Bucket-List Visit

  • Gathering for the popular Summer Nights Festival on Seventh Street in Rapid City
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    Rapid City: Arts, Culture and Dining

Some of the 1,300 bison roaming freely throughout Custer State Park in South Dakota
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South Dakota: Touring the Black Hills and Badlands

By Idoia Gkikas

  • Route distance:
    208.00 km
  • Suggested Time:
    4 days

Immortalized in movies, legendary for their expansive beauty and pioneer history, and known for a pair of massive monuments, it’s hard not to be awestruck in South Dakota’s Black Hills and Badlands.

The rugged landscape filled with forests, scenic lakes and granite peaks begs for a road trip. This one features the best of western South Dakota, from presidents carved in mountains to American Indian history and a vibrant micropolitan city.

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Canoeing in Sylvan Lake, considered the crown jewel of Custer State Park
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South Dakota Department of Tourism

Custer State Park: Where the Bison Roam Free

Catch a flight to Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP), the closest airport to your adventure through the Black Hills and Badlands. About 60 kilometers southwest of the airport, Custer State Park is the first attraction on this road trip. Encompassing nearly 29,000 hectares of untamed terrain, the park is a wonderland of wildlife: herds of bison roam alongside burros, coyotes, elk, deer, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs. Get acquainted with the park at the Visitor Center, then take the 29-kilometer Wildlife Loop Road to glimpse animals, sweeping prairie views and colorful wildflowers in the spring. Stretch your legs at Sylvan Lake. Hiking, kayaking, fishing and swimming are available as well as outdoor dining and overnight accommodations at Sylvan Lake Lodge. In fact, there are a variety of amenities in the park. From campgrounds to cabins, historic rooms that once welcomed presidents and modern resorts, the park’s wildlife isn’t the only thing visitors find a surprising amount of here. As part of the park’s wildlife management, cowboys and cowgirls herd the massive buffalo population during the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup. This ground-rumbling event takes place the last Friday of September. Follow Needles Highway, a scenic national byway also known as South Dakota Highway 87, and you’ll be surrounded by views of pine forests, meadows and granite-faced mountains. Be sure to find the Needle’s Eye and watch RVs and tour buses squeeze through the tunnels that cut through the formations.

28 km
0.5 hours by car
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The Crazy Horse Memorial, as mountain carving continues
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Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation

Crazy Horse Memorial: More Than a Mountain

Take a quick drive north on U.S. Highway 385 through the Black Hills National Forest to reach the entrance of the Crazy Horse Memorial, which you must see to believe. North American Indians are honored at the monument of the legendary Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, chiseled into the side of a mountain. Work began in 1948 on the dramatic carving which, when complete, will depict Crazy Horse astride a horse, gesturing toward the lands of his people. Not surprisingly, it’s the world’s largest mountain sculpture in progress and sometimes referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World. When you see it from the Viewing Deck, you’ll get a sense of the impressive size and scale. Also included on the memorial property are museums with collections of artifacts and special events, such as dance demonstrations, artisans at work and lectures. Mount Rushmore is up next.

25 km
0.25 hours by car
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The faces of four former U.S. presidents carved into Mount Rushmore
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South Dakota Department of Tourism

Mount Rushmore National Memorial: Historic, Patriotic, Bucket-List Visit

Another grand-scale piece of art is 25 minutes away at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Carved into the side of a granite mountain, the 18-meter sculptures of former U.S. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are remarkable in their likenesses. Learn about sculptor Gutzon Borglum at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and walk the Avenue of Flags lined with flags from all 50 states, three territories, one district and two U.S. commonwealths. You can get a great photo of the flags and monuments from here, but continue on to the Presidential Trail to get closer to the mountain. Cool off with a Thomas Jefferson vanilla ice cream cone at Carver’s Marketplace. The third U.S. president is credited with the country’s first known ice cream recipe. After your visit, return to Rapid City to experience South Dakota hospitality.

38 km
0.55 hours by car
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Gathering for the popular Summer Nights Festival on Seventh Street in Rapid City
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Visit Rapid City

Rapid City: Arts, Culture and Dining

As the second-largest city in the state, Rapid City mixes urban attractions with friendly, local faces. Its proximity to 98,000-hectare Badlands National Park, and the rest of the Black Hills, makes it a worthwhile destination. Downtown Rapid City offers an excellent assortment of shops, pubs and restaurants. If you’re still looking for the perfect gift to take home, stop by Prairie Edge Trading Co. & Galleries for handicrafts made by Lakota artisans. Between Sixth and Seventh streets, stroll Art Alley to view colorful murals. You might even see a graffiti artist at work. The city’s public art also includes statues of former U.S. presidents on almost every corner. Hike up to Skyline Wilderness Area and Dinosaur Park, aptly named for the dinosaur sculptures and fantastic city skyline views. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunset. Wind down at Murphy’s Pub & Grill, a local favorite for beer, cocktails and refined bar food. When the weather’s nice, grab a seat on the outdoor patio. Absorb the energetic vibe during the Summer Nights Festival on Seventh Street on Thursday nights; it’s a perfect way to end your visit to the Black Hills and Badlands. Regrettably, it’s time to drive 17 kilometers and catch a flight out of Rapid City for your trip home.

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