The Black Hills region of Western South Dakota and Eastern Wyoming is one of America’s top tourist destinations. There are enough things to do to keep the visitor busy for a week or more. As with most regions, some of the sights are can’t miss and some are nothing more than tourist traps. I’ve use the (+) sign here to indicate which I enjoyed and recommend and the (-) sign for those I’d recommend skipping. The beautiful thing about travel is that you are free to ignore my opinion and visit the one that appeal to you.
(+)Badlands National Park– Though technically not part of the Black Hills, Badlands National Park is located just to the east. It has remarkable scenery, and some colonies of cutest prairie dogs. The park also protects a large area of grassland, which is emblematic of the Central United States.
(+)Wind Cave National Park– One of the most unique caves in the world, Wind Cave was the seventh national park in the United States. The cave contains 95% percent of the world’s boxwork, a unique honeycomb shaped pattern that emerges when cave walls dissolve and the tougher surfaces are left behind. Tour can be book a the park’s visitor center, 10 miles north of Hot Springs.
(-)Wall Drug– Anyone who has driven through the Central United States on I-90 has undoubtedly seen the sign for this attraction. I first visited it with my parents on one of our family trips out west. Today it is a compact little mini-mall, a sight worth visiting mostly so you can say you were there, and to satisfy the curiosity brought on by the many signs leading up to the location. This is one sight that will definitely appeal more to the children than the adults.
(+)Custer State Park– One of America’s largest State Parks, the highlight of any visit to Custer State Park is the Bison. It is one of the easternmost points in the United States where this majestic symbol of the great plains still roam free in herds. In addition to the buffalo, the park is teeming with other wildlife, such as elk, mule deer, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, antelope and feral donkeys.
(-)Deadwood and the Gold Rush towns- The Black Hills saw a gold rush in the late 1870s and in the early 1880s the region had the highest population of anywhere in the Dakota Territory. Today, these former gold rush towns are kitchy places, with Deadwood, the largest and most famous of them, overflowing with tourists, especially during the summer, to visit the many casino and gift shops that now line the streets.
(+)Minuteman Missile National Historic Site-
I wrote a longer post about this cold war era nuclear missile sight
for my friend Chris over at the Amateur Traveler. Needless to say, the tour here is one of the most unique activities I have been a part of in any National Park. Being a child of the Cold War, this site brought out so many vivid childhood memories and fit the images I had in my head of those people sitting in bunkers somewhere in middle America waiting to launch our weapons if we were attacked. Tours should be arranged in advance through the park’s information desk or visitor center.
(+)Jewel Cave National Monument- Located on the western part of the Black Hills, Jewel Cave is the second longest cave in the world. As with Wind Cave, cave tours of various difficulty are offered at the site’s visitor center. Both caves are unique in their own right, but if forced to visit one or the other, Wind Cave and it’s boxwork would be the one to chose, in my opinion.
(-)Crazy Horse Memorial- This largely uncompleted sculpture aims to be the largest sculpture in the world, when (and if) it is ever completed. Located 16 miles west of Mount Rushmore, the facility is run by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. During my last visit in May of 2006, I was less than impressed with the quality of the exhibits in the site’s tiny museum, and even less impressed with the interpretive programs offered.
(+)Devil’s Tower National Monument- Probably more famous for being the landing spot of aliens in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind than being America’s first National Monument, Devil’s Tower is a laccolith, an igneous sheet intrusion, that rises over 1,200 feet out of the ground in Eastern Wyoming. The Native Americans which used to live in the area had many legends to explain the presence of such a singular formation, one of the favorites being a tale that two boys from a neighboring village were chased by a bear, and were rescued after they prayed for help and the gods pushed the tower up below them to save them. The bear clawed at the tower (hence explaining the striations on the column) but was unable to get to the boys. There is a fine painting of this legend in the monument’s visitor center.
(+)Mount Rushmore National Monument- Probably the most famous of all the Black Hills attractions, Mount Rushmore is so much more impressive in person than it is in pictures. The excellent museum at the site goes into great detail showing how sculptor Gutzon Borglum created this uniquely American masterpiece. During the summer months, crowds flock to the monument for it’s evening light show.
The Black Hills region has excellent camping and hotel options as well. It has a well-operated tourist structure, providing entertainment for every age group. The closest airport is in Rapid City, near the northern edge of the region. It makes an excellent stopping point for travelers heading from the east to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, but it would also be easy to spend a week or more just in the Black Hills.