Travel Thoughts By Kim
Let’s go on an adventure together … to South Dakota!
I’ve said many times…it is really hard to pick a “favorite” state or trip! I find beauty, adventure, and interesting things to see and do wherever I go. But, I have to say that South Dakota does hold a special place in my heart. I have been to South Dakota twice and I’d go back in a heartbeat. My first visit to the state was on a cross country motorhome trip with my brother and sister-in-law and her sister in 2016 – we called it our Most Excellent Adventure (MEA). We enjoyed 21 states in 34 days with two states that we spent a great deal of extra time in – South Dakota and Louisiana. We were in S.D. a little over a week, stayed in two different campgrounds, and got a rental car while we were there, so we had the flexibility to get around to a lot of places on day trips and see a lot of what the state has to offer. My second trip was with a friend on a Caravan bus tour that covered five states and included an overnight in the Rapid City, S.D. area.
When most people think of South Dakota, their first thoughts tend to be Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial. We did see both of these incredible sights – actually, I saw them on both trips and it was a thrill both times – not to be missed. But, South Dakota has so much more to offer. There are fun, touristy things to do, as well as beauty beyond measure and wildlife to amaze and entertain you. Here are some of the wonderful things I highly recommend you do if you should ever get the chance to visit South Dakota:
Rapid City – on our MEA, we camped for about five days in a Rapid City KOA, but didn’t actually go into downtown Rapid City on that trip. The Caravan trip, though, began with an overnight right in the heart of downtown. If you find yourself near Rapid City, don’t pass up the chance to just wander around downtown. They call themselves the “City of Presidents” and have the most wonderful life size statues of every US President – one on every corner throughout downtown. It is incredible! When I was reviewing the Caravan itinerary, I thought S.D. would be of least interest to me because I had been there and seen the two major attractions on the list of stops. But, getting free time to wander around downtown Rapid City was a real treat and ended up being one of the most memorable points of that trip.
Sioux Falls – another really cool city in S.D. is Sioux Falls. They have a Sculpture Walk that features a variety of art over several blocks downtown – everything from the quirky to spiritual to fun to stunning to interactive. We were driving through and took the opportunity to get for the road for a bit by stopping for a couple hours so we could take the walk. We were really glad we did.
Custer State Park – plan to spend the better part of a day driving through Custer State Park in the Black Hills. It is really beautiful. We actually went there twice while we were in the area – once to just drive through and explore a little and then spent most of the next day doing a deeper dive. They have wild donkeys that come right up to your car for treats, wild turkeys everywhere, and, of course, bison and prairie dogs and lots more. It also has the BEST view of Mount Rushmore – one of the tunnels is perfectly placed (by design) so that when you go through it you get an amazing framed view of the famous presidential tribute and another view from an overlook. These views are 15 miles from Mount Rushmore and I thought they were much more impressive than seeing it up close. Another of the fascinating features in the park were the Pigtail Bridges. Considered an engineering marvel of their day, these bridges circle around the elevations of the park – much like a spiral staircase for cars. They are made of log timbers and are simply stunning! If you’re traveling in a large RV, you might want to rent a car for the day – there are lots of low tunnels and places a large motorhome may have limited or no access to and you don’t want to miss any part of this beautiful park.
The Needles – the Needles is a 637 acre area within Custer State Park in the Black Hills. They consist of eroded granite pillars, towers, and spires also known as Cathedral Spires. The Needles Highway weaves in and out, around, and through the rock formations. It is incredible enough to just see them in the distance as you drive up the narrow, winding road (another reason to get a rental car, if driving a large RV), but, once you get there and start to drive through them…..well, let’s just say it took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes. It is absolutely overwhelming and reminded me just how insignificant we are in the big, beautiful world that our God has made for us to live in and enjoy. This was one of the most memorable parts of the entire Most Excellent Adventure trip and a place I would dearly love to go back to, one day.
The Badlands – another favorite spot in S.D. – one I will absolutely return to at some point – is The Badlands. Extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain caused Native Americans to call it “Badlands”. Very little vegetation grows in the Badlands, which were formed when soft sedimentary rock was extensively eroded in a dry climate over hundreds of years. Sounds awful, but the result is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It is miles and miles of the most majestic scenery I’ve ever seen. The drive through is full of awesome overlooks and tons of wildlife roaming free – including “Prairie Dog Town” which is a clearing that is home to hundreds of prairie dogs and their holes. I could have spent an entire day just watching those funny critters playing around. The Badlands is located in Interior, S.D. and was a stop as we drove through the state, so we didn’t have the luxury of spending more than one day. The website says it takes a good two days to see most of what the 244,000 acre park has to offer and it takes about two hours to just drive through it and stop at a couple overlooks. We spent most of our day there driving through the bulk of the park and driving the Sage Creek Rim Road (The Badlands Wilderness Area) where most of the wildlife can be found. I’d love to explore it more thoroughly.
Deadwood – another mostly touristy stop, but really cool place is historic Deadwood. Deadwood was considered a major “boom” town in the 1876 Black Hills Gold Rush Era. It was the epitome of what became known as the “Wild West” with legends like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane and others. It is also the town where Wild Bill Hickok was murdered by Jack McCall. Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery located on a hill overlooking the town – definitely worth the time to see. There are a lot of wild west characters roaming the streets and one of the saloons stages a reenactment of Wild Bill’s murder several times a day – we saw it – it was pretty good and a good way to get inside out of the heat for a little bit.
Fun Tourist Stops – when in S.D., you must make a stop at the Corn Palace in Mitchell. It is a HUGE building with the façade and much of the interior decorated with corn – husks, stalks, cobs, corn nuggets, etc., creating elaborate murals. The theme and all the murals change every year – the year we were there, the theme was Rock of Ages. There are also several other little museums and shops along the street to entertain you. Another must see is Wall Drug in the town of Wall. This is a store that goes on forever with room after room after room of the coolest things to see and do. They boast “free water”, but be sure to also enjoy an ice cream or eat at the lunch counter. And, Keystone is a fun stop, as well. Keystone is an old gold rush town that was built in a gulch and is now mostly tourist shops, but it is pretty cool to spend a little time there.
Wildlife – I have to say….I’ve been to a lot of places where there was potential to see a ton of wildlife and sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t. But, S.D. didn’t disappoint! I saw many herds of bison, antelope, pronghorn, big horn sheep, donkeys, prairie dogs, deer, bear, turkeys, bald eagles, and more all roaming free and being amazing. We also made an impromptu stop at a place called “Bear Country, USA” just outside Rapid City after seeing their billboard. It is a drive through animal park where the animals were mostly wandering around free that was totally awesome. They also had some walk through areas to view the smaller animals up close that included a natural enclosure with baby bear playing and having fun.
Put South Dakota on your bucket list – it is truly a must visit state! And, you can always visit my blog for tons of photos and lots more about South Dakota, my Most Excellent Adventure, and the Caravan trips mentioned in this post: https://thoughtsbykim.com – when you get there, search “Most Excellent Adventure”, “MEA” and “Caravan” to find multiple posts dedicated to these trips.