Driving through South Dakota featured a lot of long, straight highways, fields, cows, and (on the plus side) mostly 80 mph speed limits. This area is also known as the badlands, and according to Google the official definition is “extensive tracts of heavily eroded, uncultivable land with little vegetation”, which we can attest is accurate. Fortunately the drive was broken up by some pretty great stops along the way including the World’s Only Corn Palace and a great camping spot along the Missouri River.
Badlands National Park
We spent a day hiking through Badlands National Park which was full of strange-looking rock formations, lots of grass, and more rocks. It’s definitely unlike any other place we’ve been. We did a 7 mile loop around the park and ate lunch overlooking a valley. The trail was pretty empty and the park wasn’t too crowded. The most exciting part was actually on the drive after our hike to get to the other side of the park and keep driving west.
First we stumbled upon a group of big-horned sheep just chilling on the side of the road. They didn’t seem to care that there were a bunch of cars and people around taking photos, but they also looked like they would ruin your day if you crossed the line.
Feeling satisfied with our first big-horned sheep siting, we kept driving and found a few bison hanging out on the side of the road. If the big-horned sheep would ruin your day, a bison would ruin your week, and your car. They. Are. Meaty. To top of the drive, just before the park exit we found a prairie dog town and saw a coyote roaming in the distance, possibly eyeing up the prairie dogs.
Black Hills National Forest
Near the southwest corner of South Dakota the endless flat landscape gave way to actual mountains. We drove into Black Hills National Forest and found a spot to camp for the night just before it got dark. The next day we woke up early and made the quick drive to Custer State Park to climb to the highest point in South Dakota, also the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrenees Mountains in France – Black Elk Peak. There’s a fire tower at the top and incredible views, and on the way back down we made a detour to scramble up some rocks to Little Devils Tower.
On the way back down the mountain you could see the back side of Mount Rushmore in the distance. We spotted some rock climbers on one of the rock formations, and could actually hear them yelling across the valley.
After our hike we drove around the front side of Mount Rushmore to see four of our Nation’s most revered commanders in chief. Our biggest takeaway was: why is Teddy squished back in the corner? He literally put public lands and nationals parks on the map. Put him front and center! In all seriousness though, it’s hard to comprehend the scale of these giant heads carved into the side of a mountain.
Following a long day of hiking we rewarded ourselves with ice cream, a quick dip in Pactola Lake (very cold, but counts as a shower for the day), and set off to look for a place to camp for the night.
After some rest and relaxation in Rapid City we packed up the RAV again and set off on a 22 mile scenic drive from Cheyenne Crossing to Spearfish, and through Spearfish Canyon, which is also in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We planned a few stops along the way, starting with Spearfish Falls, one of several waterfalls in the canyon.
A few more miles down the road we pulled off for a quick hike through the valley. We walked along, and through, a creek bed to Devils Bathtub. The water was freezing, but felt good after being on our feet nonstop.
Our last stop in the canyon was another quick hike which was really just a scramble up the side of the mountain. The reviews we read on this spot pointed out that it wasn’t marked very well and there wasn’t much of a trail, but reading comments gave us a good enough idea that we figured we’d try it. The terrain was quite difficult to navigate with the vast majority of the ‘trail’ made up of loose rocks on an incline of around 30 degrees or so. At the top we found a huge cave-like opening with a small waterfall, and no other people in site.
The return journey down from the cave was actually pretty difficult due to all of the loose footing, but it made for a good challenge to end the day. Back in the car we made a stop in the town of Spearfish for smoothies and continued driving north. To the other Dakota.