The Black Hills (Pahá Sápa in Lakota) are an isolated mountain range rising from the Great Plains of North America in western South Dakota. The range extends into Wyoming. The hills are covered in trees, an effect that gives them a darkened appearance from a distance. The dusky corner was distinctive enough to garner the name “black hills.”
The grandeur of granite rising from the cliffs of Mt. Rushmore will in one upward glance sweep away any countryman’s negative sentiments. And impress the hell out of everyone else. Mt. Rushmore is but one impressive sight however, among the many packed into South Dakota’s southwestern corner.
Anchored by Rapid City (airport code RAP), the Black Hills area still echoes with the report of Wild West Colt pistols. You can wander through Native American Indian Reservations as you contemplate what to take in first — the sights of Mt. Rushmore featured on the big screen in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the cavernous limestone formations of Badlands National Park, Sturgis or the frontier town of Deadwood. Throw in the Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, the 1880 Train, Buffalo Gap National Grassland, the Geographic Center of the U.S., the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, Jewel Cave National Monument, or the Mammoth Site, and a week’s vacation can be easily spent in one of the most scenic and pivotally historic areas of the lower 48 states. And that’s before you even cross into Wyoming. Forget the guidebook, you’ll need only your Atlas and a penchant for discovery.
The Route: starting in Rapid City
Interstate 90 East of Rapid City will deliver you to Wall, South Dakota. If you’re already parched or ready for a stop, the Wall Drug Store offers refreshment, take in the National Grasslands Visitor Center, or search for the Minuteman Missile Silo. From there 240 South will take you directly to the scenic drive around the North Unit of Badlands National Park. The loop ends at Interior. To continue into the South Unit’s 2.7 million acres of sprawling erosion of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, proceed past Imlay to Scenic, turning South at the first/only turnoff. You’ll need to stop at the White River Visitor Center to get permission to proceed into the Reservation. West on Highway 2, then North on Highway 40 to Redshirt will complete the South Unit. “Highway” 2 is a misnomer. The road is gravel, albeit wide and well maintained. Continuing past Redshirt on Highway 40 to Hermosa presents the choice of turning North on Highway 79 and back to Rapid City, or west on Highway 36 to 87 South to Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. From Wind Cave National Park you can easily hit 385 North taking you to Custer, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Mt. Rushmore, and the ’1880 Train’ in Hill, as you progress northward.
The area is deceptively compact. While distances aren’t great between any point (from Rapid City to Hot Springs on 79 is only 57 miles) you will not desire to cover any of it quickly. And the twists and turns of the roads preclude speed. While limited lodging is available in the smaller towns and in Badlands National Park, the high season summer months make day trips to and from your pre-reserved lodging in centrally located Rapid City conducive to combing the area.
Once you’ve exhausted the sights south of Rapid City, 385 will take you to Lead (as in lead a horse to water), Deadwood, the Geographic Center of the U.S. in Belle Fourche, and Sturgis to the East just off Highway 90. Either of these towns is worthy of securing lodging if you’re ready to venture past the Rapid City anchor. Summer is high season though and Sturgis along with towns in the area are choked with bikers for the annual Bike Week Rally usually the first week in August.
Deadwood is a personal favorite (fall only, please). Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are buried in the Mt. Moriah cemetery. Saloon 10 is where Wild Bill made famous the Dead Man’s poker hand of Aces & Eights when shot from behind by Jack McCall (hanged for his crime). The town, while a haven for gambling is replete with history and the nostalgic charm of false storefronts.
Regarding FOOD, if you’ve got a nose for chocolate on the road, stop by The Chubby Chipmunk for a fix. For lunch, try the Deadwood Thymes Bistro. The last time there I had the White Bean & Chicken Chili, a Three-Cheese grilled sandwich with bell peppers and a slice of apple all melted together between perfectly browned, thick sliced bread, and a large, cold, creamy slab of their Peanut Butter & Chocolate Pie. I was hungry; the meal memorable. I’d like a repeat please. For dinner I sat one night on a perch over downtown Deadwood in the 2nd story location of Kevin Costner’s Sports Bar & Grill (above the Midnight Star casino on Main Street). While I don’t recall the food in the same longing manner as the lunch from Deadood Thymes Bistro, I do fondly remember the view and the numerous photos/posters of Kevin Costner in his Western movie roles.
A Wyoming Detour
Since you’re on the border and you could add another state-notch to your holster belt, or you’ve got another day or two to burn, why not venture into Wyoming? Devil’s Tower National Monument is a quick drive and well worth the time. Take Highway 90 to Sundance, Wyoming. From there head north on 14 for a few miles. Or if you’re sticking to the backroads, Highway 34 west out of Belle Fourche (turns into 24 at the Wyoming border) will get you there as well. Should you venturing here during the off-season, don’t count on lodging nearby. There IS lodging, but…
President Theodore Roosevelt Proclaimed Devil’s Tower the first National Monument in 1906. Many Plains Indians have legends associated with “Bear’s Lodge” and consider it a sacred site. The Kiowas legend goes like this: Kiowas were camped by a stream where there were lots of bears. Seven little girls were playing away from their village and bears took chase. The girls ran and just as the bears were about to catch them, they jumped on a low rock. One of the girls began to pray. The rock began to push itself out of the ground raising the children higher and higher. The deep grooves running down the sides are said to be made by the bears attempting to claw their way to the top. The rock continued to push the children upward into the sky so far they reside in the sky today as the pleiades star cluster.
This Great American Drive will compel you to sing the Stars & Stripes and purchase a long, black duster. Be prepared.
WARNING LABEL: If you decide to venture out of Belle Fourche to locate the original Geographic Center of the U.S. or anywhere in the above discussed areas, BEWARE of Rattlesnakes.