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South Dakota

The Perfect Badlands and the Black Hills Itinerary (3 Days)

October 26, 2019

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To be honest, South Dakota wasn’t originally on the top of my travel list. However, when some friends decided to attend a tech conference in a little town called Deadwood, I decided to tag along for the weekend.

I was blown away by the beauty of the Badlands and Black Hills and so impressed by what the state has to offer. If you’re looking for an outdoors focused trip with some amazing and unique scenery, add South Dakota to your list!

A view of the Badlands dusted in snow.
Badlands National Park


Where to Stay in Western South Dakota

For a central location in between attractions, I recommend staying in Rapid City. For a more unique and charming town with a historic western vibe, stay in Deadwood. Below are a couple options of accommodations in each.

I stayed in Deadwood and I’m glad I got to experience this unique town! But since my trip was so short, I also kind of wish I had been closer to the airport in Rapid City. I’d recommend Rapid City for a shorter trip and Deadwood or a cabin if you have more time.

Deadwood, South Dakota

Deadwood is located about an hour from Rapid City and an hour and a half from the Badlands. I’ll talk more about the town and things to do there in the itinerary below! For places to stay, there are several historic hotels and inns in town.

There are also many cabins in the area, surrounded by the natural beauty of the Black Hills. Check out the 1899 Inn bed & breakfast to stay in a charming and historic home or Black Hill Cabin Rentals to find a cabin that meets your needs!

Rapid City, South Dakota

Rapid City is a lot bigger than Deadwood and has a wide variety of hotels to choose from. A little outside the city, check out the Big Sky Lodge for a beautiful view looking down on the city. You can even see the Badlands from there if the sky is clear! To be centrally located downtown, look at Hotel Alex Johnson, a historic 1920’s building one block from Main Street.

When To Visit South Dakota

A foggy and snow covered road in the Black Hills.
The Black Hills in October

The winters in South Dakota are cold and snowy, so I recommend visiting in warmer months so you are better equipped for hiking and exploring. I visited in late October and it was cold, snowy and icy. The weather wasn’t great for hiking, but it did make for a beautiful scene to see the Badlands dusted in white.

I also happened to visit right around Halloween, when Deadwood was having their annual Deadweird festivities. The entire town transforms for Deadweird as people come from miles to celebrate Halloween. Expect live music, tons of costumes and lots of bar hopping on historic Main Street if you visit during this wild event. It was fun to see such a small town come alive!

How To Get To Western South Dakota

I flew into the Rapid City Regional Airport for my trip. It’s a very small airport, but the major US airlines fly there. Flights mostly come from Dallas, Denver and Minneapolis, with some other cities as well. Rental cars are available at the airport from the major chains.

Three Days in the Badlands and Black Hills

How to spend three days in the Badlands and the Black Hills.

A bighorn sheep up on a hill with badland rock formations towering behind it.
Spotted a ram!

Day One

Spend the day exploring the Badlands National Park and some nearby gems!

Badlands National Park
Two people walking on a snowy trail in the Badlands.
Views of the Badlands

Badlands National Park spans across 244,000 acres of untouched prairie land and harsh rock formations. Eroded buttes and pinnacles rise up and can be seen way into the distance, creating a unique and interesting landscape.

The name of the park pays homage to the Lakota people, who called this region mako sica, which translates to “bad lands.” The land earned this name for its difficult to traverse landscape, extreme weather and lack of water sources. Early human activity here points towards seasonal hunting, as it was hard to set up permanent homes in such conditions.

The Badlands were established as a National Monument in 1929, but they still weren't entirely protected from human activity. During WWII, the US Air Force commandeered a portion of the park and used it as a firing range. This caused many families living there to be displaced and damage to some of the landscape. Unexploded bombs can still be found in the South Unit of the Park, talk to a ranger before visiting.

Several deer walking around the snow covered grasslands in the Badlands.
Deer in the Badlands

What impressed me most about the Badlands was the way that the barren landscape contrasted against the abundance of life visible in the park, even in frigid October. The wildlife was very active; I saw bison, bighorn rams, prairie dogs and deer.

While the summer is better for hiking, visiting in the winter meant less people and more active wildlife. This park is unlike anywhere else I’ve been and I highly recommend that everyone visits in their lifetime.

Hiking in the Badlands
Lydia and Joe standing in front of rocks in the Badlands.

If you only have one day in the Badlands, I recommend doing a couple hikes in the morning and then taking the scenic loop drive through the park. Enter at the Northeast Entrance to be closer to the trails. There are only a handful of official trails in the park, and most are relatively short. Here are three short hikes to explore the epic scenery up close.

  • Door Trail - The door trail is 0.8 miles and you’ll be surrounded by the Badlands rock formations for the duration. Hike on top of the rocks for breathtaking views.
  • Window Trail - The Window trail is quick - only 0.25 miles. Take a quick walk on the trail for beautiful views of an eroded canyon.
  • Notch Trail - This 1.3 mile trail is unique for its giant wooden ladder that you ascend towards the end of the hike. The trail offers beautiful views and has a few steep drop offs.

If you have more time, check out the Castle Trail as well. The trail is 10 miles round trip and mostly flat. It’s great for experiencing the scenery of Badlands and for spotting wildlife.

There is an Open Hike Policy at Badlands National Park, meaning you’re allowed to venture off of the trails. It’s an exciting way to literally get off the beaten path and explore!

Drive the Badlands Loop Road
Looking out upon grasslands and badland rock formations from an overlook.
Views in the Badlands

Driving the Badlands Loop Road is a must for anyone visiting. It’s especially great for seeing incredible views even if the weather is cold! (Just be sure to check if the road conditions allow for travel in the winter, it closes occasionally after winter storms).

The road spans 39 miles through the park and has 16 scenic overlooks to stop at. I saw so much wildlife while traversing the road, my favorite being the bighorn sheep effortlessly climbing the sharp buttes.

I added onto the Badlands Loop Road by driving down part of the Sage Creek Rim Road as well. Find Sage Creek Rim Road right before you exit from the Pinnacles entrance. The road is dirt instead of paved, but okay for most cars. I stopped at all of the overlooks until the Sage Creek Overlook. The Roberts Prairie Dog Town was definitely a highlight!

I recommend stopping at as many scenic overlooks as you have time for, but here are some highlights on the Loop Road. Allow about 2 hours for driving the scenic road.

Some unique rock formations as far as the eye can see.
Views in the Badlands

These are my favorite stops on the Loop Road, in order of East to West:

  • Be sure to stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, where you’ll find a museum to learn more about the geology of the park.
  • Panorama Point offers wide stretched views of the land where you can see for miles.
  • The Burns Basin Overlook has more views over the rim and parts of the grassland.
  • The Pinnacle Overlook has gorgeous views of ridges and eroded rocks, it is often referred to as the best view in the Badlands.

The scenic Badlands Loop Road was perfect for the late October weather. I still feel like I got to experience the incredible beauty of the park from the comfort and warmth of the car. The snow dusted rocks were especially beautiful.

Wall Drug
The exterior of Wall Drug Store. The sign reads 'Wall Drug Store, Since 1931, Western Art Gallery, Cafe, 530 Seating Capacity'
Wall Drug

Be sure to stop at Wall Drug before or after visiting the Badlands. This sprawling drug store opened in 1931 and put the tiny town of Wall, SD on the map.

Inside, you’ll find endless souvenirs, a plethora of food, a chapel, an animatronic band and always-free ice water. It’s a sight to behold and a great place to check out and buy a snack for the road. It’s located very close to the Pinnacle Entrance of the park.

Animatronic cowboys playing music behind glass inside of Wall Drug.
Wall Drug Animatronics

You’ll also see signs for Wall Drug along the highway for 100’s of miles in every direction. The signs advertise the always-free ice water, 5 cent coffee and free coffee and donut for honeymooners.

Minuteman Missile Museum
An exhibit inside the Minuteman Missile Museum about split-second decisions.
The Minuteman Missile Museum

If you have time and are interested in Cold War History, visit the Minuteman Missile Museum located just outside the Northeast entrance of the park. Many nuclear missiles were hidden in the South Dakota plains during the Cold War and this small museum explains their role in the Nuclear Arms race.

The museum serves as a visitor center and gateway to visiting the missile silos that have been made open for viewing nearby. Stop at Delta 09, which is right off of I-90, and gaze down at the missile in a preserved silo.

If you want more, you can reserve a guided tour of the Delta-01 launch facility. Tours can be booked up to 90 days in advance and fill up quickly in the summer months.

There were 100’s of silos hidden in this area during the Cold War, but most were destroyed in the 90’s. The park service has preserved one, the Delta 09, that you can gaze down at today.

Day Two

Spend the day exploring Custer State Park!

A view of rocks and trees in The Black Hills.
The Black Hills
Custer State Park

Custer State Park is an often overlooked gem in the Black Hills with impressive rock formations, an abundance of wildlife and beautiful scenery. At 71,000 acres, it is one of the largest state parks in the country. There are a number of scenic drives, a range of hikes and swimming in the summer. I recommend spending an entire day if you can!

Black Elk Peak in Custer State Park is the highest point in North America located east of the Rockies. I would not have guessed this would be in South Dakota!

Scenic Drives

Drive through narrow tunnels and gaze at towering granite spires on the Needles Highway. The drive is 14 miles and full of plenty of scenic pull offs to stop at.

One of the most interesting parts of the drive is the Needles Eye Tunnel - an extremely tight tunnel that might make you nervous if you’re in a large car. The tunnel is only 8’4” wide and 12’ high, so large RVs are unable to fit through.

Don’t forget to look for the needle's eye rock formation after exiting the tunnel! Allow about 1 hour to explore the Needles Highway, and even longer on a busy day.

The Wildlife Loop Road is another amazing scenic drive in the park. The road is 18 miles in length and the perfect way to spot some of the 1,400 bison that call the park home. It’s also a great place to spot bighorn sheep, elk, prairie dogs, coyotes and deer.

On the southernmost tip of the road, you might spot the overly friendly ‘begging burros.’ The burros are not native to the area, but a small group has roamed the park for over 100 years. They originally worked in the park as pack animals and were released into the park when they were no longer needed.

The burros are used to being fed and will walk right up to car windows and slobber on the glass. The park rangers ask for them to not be fed, but many do it anyway. Allow about 1 to 2 hours to explore the Wildlife Loop Road, and try to visit in the morning or evening when the animals are most active.

Hiking

There are some amazing hiking trails in Custer State Park. You can get up close with the cathedral spire rock formations and experience great views of the Black Hills. Here are the hikes I recommend if you have a short amount of time.

Cathedral Spikes Trail and Black Elk Peak Trail

The Cathedral Spikes Trail is 2.3 miles long and takes you through a valley of towering rock spires. The hike involves a steep uphill climb and is rated moderate, but is worth it for the views.

If you have enough time, combine the Cathedral Spires Trail with the Black Elk Peak Trail to see the highest point east of the Rockies. Most people start at Sylvan Lake, hike to the Black Elk Peak and down the Cathedral Spires Trail (7.9 miles), but you can also start with the Cathedral Spires Trail. At the top of the Black Elk Pike Trail, climb the fire tower for incredible views of the Black Hills.

Sunday Gulch Trail

The Sunday Gulch Trail is a 3 mile hike through a rocky ravine. It’s a lot of fun because it involves hiking over large boulders to traverse the gulch. There are many rails and staircases to help steady yourself throughout the journey.

To get there, hike around Sylvan Lake. You can take the loop either clockwise or counterclockwise. If you take the counterclockwise route, you will do the strenuous and rocky section first and spend more time going downhill. The hike is a lot of fun and has great views throughout the journey.

Lovers' Leap Trail

Lovers' Leap begins with a steep ascent through ponderosa pine and oak forest and is one of the park’s most popular trails. The trail is 4 miles and follows the ridgeline, the highest point being Lovers Leap.

Highlights include views of Mount Coolidge, Black Elk Peak and the Cathedral Spires. Prepare to get wet because the trail descends quickly to Galena Creek, which you’ll need to cross numerous times.

Day Three

I have several options of activities for day three because your route will depend on your interests and the time of year. An ideal choice for me would be to visit Devil’s Tower, drive and hike through Spearfish Canyon, and then have a drink at a saloon and explore some of the history in Deadwood.

Devil’s Tower
A rock tower surrounded by trees with orange foliage.
Devil's Tower

Drive about two hours west from Deadwood into Wyoming to see Devil’s Tower National Monument. The natural rock formation is a sacred monument for over twenty Native American tribes and resembles a giant tree trunk slashed by bear claws.

When visiting, you can walk around the monument and hike one of the 5 trails in the park. Check out the 2.8 mile Red Beds Trail for good views of the tower and the valley and be sure to walk through the South Side Trail to experience the prairie dog town.

This was my first time seeing prairie dogs and they are so fun to watch! They were very active popping in and out of different holes, squeaking to alert each other of our presence and keeping an eye on us from afar.

Note that climbing on the tower is allowed here (a technical type of climbing called crack climbing), but that many Native Americans see the activity as a desecration to their sacred site. The park service has agreed to a voluntary no climbing period in June when many Native American rituals take place.

A prairie dog town with Devil's Tower in the background.
Devil's Tower with the prairie dog town in the foreground
Spearfish Canyon
A snow covered road with a rock towering up on one side.
The drive through Spearfish Canyon

Take a drive or a hike through the narrow gorge of Spearfish Canyon, which has been carved away by Spearfish Creek. It is located just south of Spearfish and north of Deadwood. There are scenic viewpoints and gorgeous waterfalls to stop at along the way.

Here are some stops to make while driving the scenic byway, from North to South:

A small waterfall surrounded by snow.
Bridal Veil Falls in October
  • Bridal Veil Falls is located right off the road and is approximately 60 feet high. Cross the road to the falls and you can walk right up and touch the water!
  • The Devil’s Bathtub trail is a 1.1 mile hike that leads to a secluded swimming hole. The hike is technical and includes some boulder crossings, rock scrambling and river crossings (which are more difficult in the spring when water is flowing). When you reach the swimming hole at the end, there is a natural waterslide that you can slide down!
  • Spearfish Falls is a 80 foot waterfall at the bottom of Spearfish Canyon. The hike is just 0.8 miles and brings you face to face with the incredible roaring waterfall.
  • Roughlock Falls is a gorgeous multi-tiered waterfall that cascades in all directions over a limestone ledge. The trail is 2.1 miles and handicap accessible.
Explore Deadwood
A street in the city of Deadwood. A sign reads 'Gold Dust C-Store'
Deadwood

The town of Deadwood is a little historic gem located an hour northwest of Rapid City. It was put on the map in 1876 when gold was discovered and attracted iconic Wild West historic figures like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill.

Today, it is one of the best preservations of gold rush style architecture and the entire town has been registered as a National Historic Landmark. As you walk the streets, you’ll find vintage saloons, brick roads and historic markers that indicate the town’s storied history.

There is a Deadwood tv show that ran from 2004-2006 and a Deadwood movie that came out in 2019. They weren’t filmed in Deadwood but are mostly historically accurate to the story of the Gold Rush in the Black Hills.

Things To Do in Deadwood

  • Visit the graves of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane at the Mount Moriah Cemetery. The cemetery is a beautiful and peaceful place to walk around and be up close with history.
  • Tour the Adams Museum to learn about the history of the Black Hills and to see a representation of a 1892 home. The museum is nicknamed “Deadwood’s Attic” and includes an interesting assortment of items from Deadwood residents. Inside you’ll find a two-headed calf, a golden nugget and a hand carved nudist colony. To visit, you’ll need to go on a guided tour.
  • Go on a bike ride on the George S. Mickelson Trail. The trail winds through the Black Hills National Forest and the entire path is 109 miles. There are 15 trailheads throughout the Black Hills and one of the trailheads is in the heart of Deadwood.
  • Visit the ‘possible’ original location where Wild Bill was shot at the Wild Bill Bar. The entire town was destroyed by fire in 1874, so the actual locations are a bit unclear. Outside the bar, there is a sign that claims it was the Original Location of Saloon No. 10. Inside, there is a bar upstairs and a recreation of the original bar, Nuttall and Manns, downstairs. Tours of the recreation are self guided or guided depending on time of year and cost $10.
  • Walk down the street from the Wild Bill Bar and visit the other Saloon No. 10, which claims to have the original chair that Wild Bill sat in when he was shot. The bar doubles as a museum and casino with artifacts lining the walls and ceiling. Saloon No. 10 opened in 1938 and was an early example of a theme bar. It was intended to tap into the Wild West history of Deadwood and has accomplished that goal, considering that the death chair is one of the most visited attractions in town.

Food & Drink

To be honest, I had trouble finding a lot of vegetarian food in Deadwood. The best I found was His and Hers Ale House and Wine Bar, a bar with a great selection of pizza and paninis, along with a wide selection of beer and wine.

For drinking, there is no shortage of saloons and places to grab a drink. Take a walk down Main St and visit Saloon No. 10, Wild Bill Bar or the Nugget Saloon to get a taste of the Wild West. If you prefer a winery to a saloon, head to the edge of downtown and enjoy a $5 wine tasting at the Belle Joli Winery.

Wind Caves

The cave at Wind Cave National Park is one of the oldest and most complex in the world. One aspect that makes it unique is the boxwork - an uncommon mineral structure that resembles a web. There are 149 miles of known cave just sitting under 1.25 square miles of land - highlighting how dense it is.

Unfortunately, the cave elevator needed repairs in June 2019 and all cave tours were suspended when I visited. Now the elevator is fixed, but they are not currently operating cave tours due to the pandemic. Be sure to check the website for current status before planning your visit.

If you visit the park right now, you can still hike on one of the trails above the cave. Check out the 1 mile Rankin Ridge Interpretive Trail for a nice stroll around the area with the possibility of a bison crossing your path.

For a longer hike, try the Lookout Point and Centennial Trail Loop, 4.8 miles long. The trail is mostly through prairie grass but climbs up to the Lookout Point Overlook, which has beautiful views of the surrounding prairie and forests. You can also visit the visitor’s center, which has a nice museum about the cave with casts of the boxwork and other cave features.

Mount Rushmore
A construction fence with Mount Rushmore in the background.
Mount Rushmore under renovation

Mount Rushmore is an obvious destination when you’re in the area, as it is such a well-known and iconic American landmark. I have mixed feelings about visiting. On the one hand, it is an impressive work of art. On the other hand, I don’t love the idea of glorifying these men to extent of carving up a beautiful mountain. Whatever your feelings are, it’s definitely one of those “must-sees” while in the area.

Unfortunately when I visited, the entire area past the gift shop was under construction so I couldn’t get as close as you normally can. As you walk up to the monument, flags representing all of the states and territories of the United States line the walkway. At the end of the walkway, there is an informative and really well done museum that shows a movie and exhibits about the creation and history of the monument.

You can also walk the Presidential Trail to get a little closer to the sculpture. Along the same path, you’ll find the Sculptor’s Studio, where there is a 1:12 replica that was used as a guide for carving the real sculpture.

There are three designated free speech areas at the Mount Rushmore Memorial, so in these areas you may see and hear people from a range of religious or political groups spreading their message.

Crazy Horse
A rock carving of an Oglala Lakota warrior carved into a huge rock face.
Crazy Horse

A short drive from Mount Rushmore, you can see a sculpture in progress to someday become the largest sculpture in the world. The Crazy Horse Memorial was commissioned by Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, who felt that the Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse was fitting to be near presidential figures like Washington and Lincoln.

While it was originally commissioned by the Lakota Chief, it was later completely taken over by the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and his family. Today, there is some discomfort that Ziolkowski’s non-Indian family is profiting off of the Lakota history. There have also been questions of whether Crazy Horse would have wanted a sculpture this size to represent him, as he was known for his humility.

The completion of the carving has been a very slow process. The head and face were completed in 1998, but the goal is for there to someday be a man riding a horse. The project is a non-profit and does not accept state or federal funding, meaning that it is mostly funded by the expensive entrance fee.

During your visit, you can explore the large museum and see the memorial from there, or pay a few dollars more to be driven out to the base of the sculpture.

The completed head and face of the sculpture are quite impressive in their size - the eyes are 17 feet apart.

Explore Rapid City

Rapid City has a population of a little over 75,000 and is known as the City of Presidents. There are 43 life size bronze president statues on the corners of downtown streets. Explore the downtown area and see how many you recognize.

Another unique place to visit right outside of Rapid City is the Chapel in the Hills - a gorgeous replica of a 12th-century Norway church. The architecture is intricate and fascinating to see, and the chapel is a peaceful place to relax.

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