The 8 Greats - Iconic Landmarks of South Dakota for Your Travel Map!
Mount Rushmore.“Great Faces, Great Places” is not our state motto for nothing. When Gutzom Borglum stood before the craggy piece of granite he ultimately selected to be Mount Rushmore, it is very possible he had no idea the impact his carving would have on not only the state, but the world. Every year, millions of people make their way to the Midwest to gaze up at the stone faces of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. It’s impossible not to feel the history of the entire monument as you make your way down the Avenue of Flags toward Mount Rushmore. The amazing engineering required to sculpt the monument is a fascinating story, and you can travel through time to learn about it in the Sculptor’s Studio self-guided tour. If you are in the area mid-May through mid-September, it is very worth it to plan your trip in the evening so you can catch the Evening Lighting Show. On your way out, be sure to pop into the Carver’s Café for some snacks or a hand-scooped ice cream cone!
The Badlands.As you make your way down I-90 to your Rapid City hotel, you will start to notice some amazing natural structures rising from the prairie off to your left. The Badlands of South Dakota, formed over 75 million years ago, hold some of the richest fossil deposits in the world. Whether you’re a photog intent on catching a famous Badlands sunrise or sunset, a family with some youngsters interested in all things nature, a hardcore mountain biker looking for a challenge, or a couple out for a romantic cruise, Badlands National Park has exactly what you’re looking for. With two visitor centers, three gorgeous wildlife loops to drive, tons of outdoor activities, a fossil preparation lab, camping, and lots of wildlife to discover, the Badlands are not a one-and-done. Most of the family-friendly activities and hands-on events last an hour, and you should plan for about three hours or so for any of the scenic drives.
Crazy Horse Memorial.Rising 563 feet tall from the very heart of the Black Hills, the majestic profile of Chief Crazy Horse flings its 29-foot finger toward Paha Sapa. Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear selected the location to honor his cousin Crazy Horse and chose sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to head the project. Standing Bear wished for a monument as magnificent as Gutzom Borglum’s Mount Rushmore to forever honor and memorialize his own people. In 1948, Ziolkowski began carving, and what we now know as Crazy Horse Memorial came into existence. Aside from visiting the statue, you can browse through the gift shop for local Native American art, grab some delicious Tatanka Stew from the Laughing Water Restaurant, wander through the Indian Museum of North America and Native American Educational and Cultural Center, or get involved in one of the many hands-on activities. Favorite Native American performers Brule are often featured; and don’t be surprised to see hoop dancers, pottery makers, and many other Native American artists in residence. If you are in the area mid-May through mid-September, don’t miss the chance to see Crazy Horse Memorial’s laser light show – it will be the highlight of your visit!
Historic Deadwood.Long before Deadwood was known for its gambling, it was known for its gunslingers and its gold. Everyone has heard the famous story about Wild Bill Hickock and his deadly card game, and who doesn’t know about Poker Alice or Calamity Jane? Many of these famous figures central to the Midwest’s wild history can be found in their final resting places up at Mt. Moriah Cemetery (better known as Boot Hill.) If cemeteries aren’t your thing, fear not! There are tons of things to do in the historic mining town. Taking a trolley trip up Main Street is always worth your time, and you can scope out shops and casinos to visit on your tour. Chubby Chipmunk, a local favorite chocolatier, has legendary chocolates; and Pam’s Purple Door is a gift shop boutique with quite the history – it used to be a brothel. Don’t pass up on all the good eats in Deadwood, either. You can find everything from a quick snack to a four-star meal, depending on what you’re hungry for or where you go. If you’re here in the summer, take the time to catch Deadwood’s Trial of Jack McCall shootout, held daily at 2pm and 4pm in Deadwood’s Outlaw Square.
Custer State Park.Encompassing over 71,000 acres in the center of the beautiful Black Hills, Custer State Park offers nine campgrounds, one horse camp, Blue Bell Lodge, the Game Lodge, cabins, lakes, buffalo, burros, and likely a partridge in a pear tree. If you want to catch everything available, you should plan to stay for several days. The three most popular scenic drives are through Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, and The Wildlife Loop. Switchbacks, pigtails, and all kinds of wildlife are what you can expect to experience – just don’t get out of your car to pet the fluffy cows, the buffalo can actually be very dangerous! If you do want to get out of your car, the possibilities are endless – hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, fishing, and even snowshoeing in the winter months!
Jewel Cave.In 1900, brothers Frank and Albert Michaud were prospecting on their land in Custer, SD when they found a small hole in the ground emitting blasts of cold air. They returned with dynamite to widen the hole and discovered a vast underground cavern covered in calcite crystals. The crystals sparkled like jewels in the light of their lamps, and they filed the “Jewel Tunnel Lode” mining claim on Halloween of 1900.The land changed hands various times until the National Park Service took over its maintenance in 1933.As park rangers continued to give tours of the small cave, local interest grew in the cavern, and several cave explorers discovered another 15 miles of passageways in the late 1960s.This discovery gave the cave the clout it needed for further development, and Jewel Cave now sports a scenic area cave trail, an elevator, Visitor Center, and ranger cabins. Historic Lantern Tours, Discovery Talks, and Scenic Tours are all available. You can also schedule a Wild Caving Tour, but be warned, this one is not for the faint of heart – be ready for some strenuous caving. For a list of Caving Do’s and Don’ts, check out the National Park Service’s website here.
Wind Cave National Park.Wind Cave is a very special National Park – it is the first to protect a cave. Since the 1890s, explorers and spelunkers have been trying to find the end to the cave – to date, no one has been able to. Located in Hot Springs, SD, Wind Cave boasts rare boxwork, frostwork, and cave popcorn formations not found in many other caves. It has a rich and varied history, both with South Dakota’s Native American people, and South Dakota’s homestakers, and is considered the longest and most complex cave system in the world. There are varied levels of guided tours, from handicap accessible to expert spelunker, hiking trails, and interactive events. Learn more about all the things you can do at Wind Cave National Park here.
The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs
In 1974, a heavy equipment operator made a "mammoth" discovery while grading land for a housing development in Hot Springs, SD. Skull fragments, tusks, teeth, and many other bones unearthed from over six mammoths led to a nationally recognized dig site for flora, fauna, amphibians, mammals and more! The Mammoth Site is now a world-renowned research facility and museum, offering year-round hands-on family activities that focus on educating the public about life on the Northern Great Plains during the Late Ice Age.
What to know when you go:
Be sure to call ahead for open tour hours; due to the summer/winter tourism industry, the Mammoth Site hours vary throughout the year. From your Rapid City Hotel, your drive is only about 50 minutes away, and you can always stop in the middle to hunt for Fairburn agates or get a quick snack in Hermosa! You can also check out Mammoth Site FAQ here.