Returning home on my western road trip I spent a few days exploring South Dakota’s Black Hills and Badlands National Park. The two are just a few miles apart, but a huge elevation difference.
You don’t have to drive to the Rockies to reach mountains. When you reach the Black Hills you are in the tallest mountains between the Rocky Mountains and the European Alps. Several top out over 7,000 feet and nothing along the East Coast reaches that high.
The Black Hills, much of it national forest land, is made up of rocky, pointed peaks; pine- and spruce-covered mountains and hills; and canyons interspersed with fertile valleys and upland prairies. It’s a lush, green natural area situated in the semiarid high plains and hosts a number of natural and man-made attractions well worth seeing. It’s an easy two-day drive from Traverse City.
On the west side of the Black Hills is the infamous town of Deadwood with its western heritage. Restored Victorian hotels and gaming houses dominate cobblestone Main Street. Historical plaques abound throughout the town, a living, breathing, working monument to the “old west.” Among other western legends Wild Bill Hickok, who was gunned down here in a bar, and Calamity Jane are buried in the town’s cemetery. The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, located above Deadwood and Lead, is well worth the drive and has lots of spectacular hiking trails all along the route leading to some “eye-candy” vistas.
I like staying on the east side in the mountain town of Custer, which offers easy access to a number of areas: Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Monument, Wind Cave and Jewell Cave National Parks, and Custer State Park. The town offers a variety of chain and mom-and-pop motels and places to eat. None of the mentioned attractions are more than a half-hour away.
Custer State Park, which has a plethora of both vehicular roads and hiking trails to explore, is home to a variety of wildlife. During the short, morning drive over to the state park, traffic was stopped for a half-hour while a buffalo herd moseyed across the road heading into the 71,000-acre park. Later I was again stopped while taking the 38-mile Wildlife Loop Road. Four burros decided to walk around my Jeep and look in all the windows. Pronghorns gazed by the roadside. I saw distant elk hiking the 3.5-mile Prairie Trail, which was off the Loop Road. You definitely see wildlife.
Iron Mountain Road, just east of where the Loop Road finishes and on the way to Mount Rushmore, offers jaw-dropping mountain views, lots of pull-offs for pictures, and three tunnels. The last tunnel perfectly frames the presidential sculptures as you pass through.
Mount Rushmore was majestic to see and awe-inspiring when I thought about what it took to carve those sculptures into the mountainside. The Crazy Horse Monument, both majestic and awe-inspiring because of the belief that’s kept it going for over 70 years, is a work in progress worth visiting.
The Black Hills is also home to two of the longest caves in the world, Wind Cave just south of Custer and Jewell Cave just west of town. Both are national parks offering unique, fascinating underground tours, with uniquely different formations in each cave. Jewell is third- and Wind sixth-longest for miles of tunnels in the world. I enjoyed tours of both caves several years ago, and since little changes in caves over thousands of years skipped them on this stop over.
Badlands National Park is located just east of the Black Hills off I-90. A scenic 42-mile loop road, SR-240, heads along ridges offering panoramic picturesque views stretching across the badlands and beyond then sweeps down into the canyons and bottomland, giving views of sharp-edged peaks and sheer-walled, wind-blasted rock and water-cut canyons among a jagged, jumbled otherworldly landscape you won’t see anywhere else in the Heartland.
It literally took my breath away the first time I dropped into the Badlands NP years ago. I thought I was landing on the moon. I’ve never lost that feeling and never tired of taking time for the loop road. There are several places where you can park the vehicle and take short hikes ranging from a half-mile, 2 miles and 4 miles to explore this unique landscape up close.
There are three short, easy hikes from the Windows parking area on the eastern end of the park. My favorite is the one-and-half-mile, out-and-back Notch Trail that includes a fairly steep climb on a well-made wooden ladder to traverse along a small canyon wall before being rewarded with a “window” in a wall presenting a striking view of badlands.
A longer, 4-mile hike along the top of the wall rewards you with stunning views of massive pinnacles and steeply eroded gullies, all characteristic of badlands, then swings back through beautiful grasslands that dominate the landscape on top. It starts at the Saddle Pass Trailhead, a short, steep climb to the top of the wall where you intersect the Castle Trail. Follow it to the next intersection with Medicine Foot Trail, which you return on to the original intersection you started from. The Saddle Pass Trail quickly takes you back down to your vehicle.
Such dramatically different landscapes, the Black Hills and Badlands, yet so close together. If you haven’t been, put it on your list.