Stunning summer scenery in South Dakota.
If you envision a quintessential summer vacation, visions of beaches and palm trees might come to mind — but in western South Dakota, the Black Hills and Badlands offer scenery that’s just as stunning, with mountains, memorials and activities that thoroughly embrace Americana. Where the Midwestern prairies meet the western mountains, and where terrain looks so spectacularly otherworldly it feels like another planet, the Mount Rushmore State shines as one of the most underrated summer destinations in the country … with enough abundant nature, history, lakes and scenery to have you forgetting all about the beach.
Where to Stay
As the urban hub of western South Dakota, forming a convenient gateway loca-tion for both Badlands National Park and the Black Hills, Rapid City is a good option for lodging. Along with myriad hotels and campgrounds, the historic Hotel Alex Johnson reigns as the crown jewel. Soaring over downtown as the tallest building in town, this hotel is as established as Mount Rushmore — in fact, the hotel began construction in 1927, just one day before the famed mountain carving got underway. The 11-story property, capped with rooftop Vertex Sky Bar, features Germanic Tudor-style architecture and comfy, ornate confines that transport guests back to the Roaring Twenties.
For another blast from the past, the hilly Gold Rush-era town of Deadwood fits the bill. An old-timey town known for its saloons, casinos and vintage-looking Main Street with gun-toting reenactments and a brothel museum, the Wild West hamlet boasts plenty of themed lodges and folksy abodes. Then there’s the refreshingly modern Four Points by Sheraton Deadwood, a comparatively sleek and sophisticated property that swaps faux shootouts for a rooftop terrace, craft beer bar and a swanky steakhouse called Snitches. While in town, be sure to traipse through Mount Moriah Cemetery, which overlooks the town from up on a forested hill and is where infamous rebels like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok are buried.
Where to Play
Home to Badlands National Park, a gnarly landscape that looks more like Mars
than the Midwest, as well as the bucolic Black Hills and all their awe-inspiring
beauty, western South Dakota is a veritable dreamscape of summer scenery.
Start with a sunrise hike at the Badlands. Located about an hour east of Rapid City, the park seems to emerge abruptly from the rolling prairie, as the land erupts into a sea of sandstone buttes, canyons, spires and pinnacles. Craggy hills and valleys look like super-sized sandcastles, which are ripe for climbing and hiking. There are a handful of short designated trails, but this is one of the rare national parks where visitors are free to explore off-trail — just be sure to come equipped with ample water and sunscreen, and keep your eyes peeled for roving bison and bighorn sheep.
A few minutes north of the park, Wall Drug is a kitschy roadside spectacle. After originating as a straightforward pharmacy in 1931, the area has evolved into a memorable smattering of saloons, cafes, shops, photo ops and attractions. Nowadays, upwards of 1 million tourists per year flock here to peruse the arcade, visit the tiny chapel, pose atop a giant jackalope figurine and tour The Apothecary Shop and Pharmacy Museum. Whatever you do, don’t miss the doughnuts — the cafeteria-style restaurant is revered for its cake-style doughnuts, frosted in vanilla, chocolate or maple.
About an hour and a half back west, the Black Hills beckon. An oasis of boulder clad mountains, pristine lakes, hilly hiking trails and world-famed memorials, this is a region that needs to be explored to be believed.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, a famous American destination on par with the Statue of Liberty, is breathtaking to behold. The massive rock carving is a remarkable feat, rising like a chiseled monolith over a canopy of pine trees, especially at sunrise or sunset. Stroll along the boardwalk trail that forms a tree-lined loop in front of the mountain.
Another Black Hills colossus is the Crazy Horse Memorial, a perpetual in-the-works mountain carving so large that it towers Mount Rushmore. Meant as an homage to Lakota leader Crazy Horse, the granite feature will be the largest mountain carving in the world if completed. Until then, guests can visit the memorial via an extensive museum and visitor center, with the enormous carving — a silhouette of Crazy Horse extending his arm out toward the surrounding hills — taking shape in the distance. It’s worth noting both attractions have been criticized, as Mount Rushmore was built on stolen Lakota land and several of Crazy Horse’s descendants disagree with the memorial, but as long as visitors are mindful, the beauty of these fraught attractions make them requi-
Elsewhere in the Black Hills, the pastoral terrain offers a wonderland of scenic drives and experiences, including the Needles Highway that carves its way through Custer State Park and needle-thin rocky tunnels. Along the way, stop off at Sylvan Lake for a picnic on the shore, a casual kayak trip or a hike up adjoining Black Elk Peak for panoramic views atop the highest point in the state. Or if you’d prefer another mode of transport, the 1880 Train is a vintage steam locomotive that’s been chugging its way through hilly forests between the charming towns of Hill City and Keystone since the mining boom of the 1880s. Today, while prospectors aren’t still mining for ore, passengers can board the train for an old-fashioned journey from a bygone era.
In the Southern Hills, the town of Hot Springs is another unique destination worth the stopover. As its name suggests, it’s a town famed for its hot thermal waters, which visitors can soak in at places such as Moccasin Springs Natural Mineral Spa, an elegant oasis with six outdoor pools that range in temperatures between 80 and 105 degrees. Moccasin Springs shares a roof with one of the best restaurants in the region, Buffalo Dreamer, where seasonality and organic ingredients form an ever-changing menu with dishes like lamb chops in honey mint sauce, red lentil dahl and banh mi tacos.
Where to Eat and Drink
In addition to Wall Drug doughnuts, Crazy Horse fry bread and Buffalo
Dreamer tacos, the region teems with other culinary riches. Among them, Skogen Kitchen is an intimate chef-driven nook in Custer featuring a dynamic roster of eclectic eats such as lobster steam buns, duck leg with parsnip dashi puree, veal cheek with black garlic tahini and sweet potato agnolotti with yuzu butter.
To drink, Hill City is home to the one-two punch of Miner Brewing Co. and Prairie Berry Winery, two boozy destinations nestled next to each other on a small hill. The former offers a diverse array of house brews on draft, like Miner Mango Cream Ale and the Miner Alter Ego Concord Sour Ale, while Prairie Berry is a family-run staple that offers a full food menu and a library of wines to sip and sample, including a pear wine called Gold Digger and the fan-favorite Red Ass Rhubarb.
Back in Rapid City, you might be surprised to discover such a real-deal taste of Tokyo in the Black Hills. That’s thanks to Bokujo Ramen, a buzzy downtown noodle nook that combines local ingredients with Japanese technique, resulting in dishes like bison bone ramen, kale furikake salad and roasted bison steam buns.