Recently RootsRated was invited to visit South Dakota and learn why it might be a fantastic location for outdoor adventurers. Divided down the middle by the Missouri River, South Dakota is a tale of two states. Our trip focused on locations within an easy drive to Rapid City. Here are a few conclusions from our tour of the mountainous region of SD, locally known as “West River” as it’s, well, west of the Missouri River.
South Dakota is Really Spacious
With roughly one-half the population of Manhattan (23-square-miles), the state of South Dakota (77,158 square miles) has no shortage of wide-open spaces. Driving the scenic highways of the Mount Rushmore State can leave one feeling like there might not be another soul for a hundred miles. With nothing up-close to whiz by your window, even an 80 mile-per-hour speed limit doesn’t leave one feeling rushed. Tightly placed rolling hills, long shallow valleys, and enormous farms keep the scenery interesting but never claustrophobic.
Fitting the plenty-of-room theme that seems to describe South Dakota, the spacious Custer State Park is a surprising expanse of roughly hewn granite spires, huge stands of towering pine, and wide-open grasslands. Even the 2,000-pound bison find plenty of room to roam in the park. Some 1,300 of the hulking beasts nibble grasses growing on the park’s prairie.
Some of the most popular trails at Custer lead walkers up to the top of Harney Peak. At 7,242 feet, Harney is the tallest mountain between the Rockies and Europe. Beginning at the picturesque Sylvan Lake, the 7-mile Sylvan Lake Trail offers the best of Custer. Traveling first through a shady tunnel of tall pine trees, the easy to follow trail opens up on exposed granite outcroppings before finishing at the stone fire tower on top of Harney. Large, smooth rock faces provide excellent views and an ideal spot to stretch out for lunch. Expectant chipmunks dart from rock to rock, hoping for a clumsy hiker to drop a few crumbs.
No trip to the left half of SD would be complete without a stop in the historic old west town of Deadwood . The infamous town—this is where Wild Bill Hickok was shot—is full of casinos and kitsch, but is also the northern terminus of the George S Mickelson Trail . Not happy with a standard 10-mile rail-to-trail path, South Dakota ups the game with 114 miles of wide, smooth trail running through the Black Hills. Just a mile south of town and you’re among huge hills of green and brown and rolling prairie farmland.
Parts of South Dakota Look Like Another Planet
Once upon a time, some 70 million years ago, the area that is now Badlands National Park was underwater. A shallow, ancient sea covered the land, leading to two interesting facts about the park. First, since dinosaurs were not known to be terribly strong seafaring animals, there are no dinosaur bones buried there. The area is known for vast deposits of fossils from marine life and, from later eras, mammals that no longer exist.
The sea and subsequent rivers left behind layers of sediment. As the area was uplifted and the sea dispersed, these sediments—now cast into various types of stone—were exposed and eroded. The geologic formations carved by these persistent forces create a landscape that would seem more at home on one of our celestial neighbors.
A short stroll from the parking lot on the Door Trail leads through a wall of rugged, spear shaped peaks and into the terrain hiding behind them. Watching the sun rise over roughly hewn spires and deep, rocky gullies—each looking like The Grand Canyon in miniature—is well worth the bleary-eyed morning start.
As light increases, transitioning from the cool-grey of predawn—each striation in the surrounding rock seems to change color. Bands of yellow and burnt orange begin to project against strips of dusty brown. Thin lines of burgundy appear and, just as quickly, transform to rust before settling into reddish-brown in the full light of day. There are no designated trails in this area so crawling and climbing through and over each formation is done at one’s own risk and to one’s own delight.
Getting an early start also comes with the benefit of plenty of daylight to explore a large section of the park. The mostly flat Castle Trail, 5-miles each way, leads past huge rock formations and craggy valleys on its way to the short Fossil Exhibit path. On the return trip check out the Saddle Pass Trail for a climb down, and back up, a steep rocky face with fantastic views of the adjacent grassy prairie.
The Food, Like Everything Else, is Really Big
Stocking up in Rapid City for the trip means a stop at Black Hills Bagels . Every morning the good folks at BHB begin baking their crusty, chewy bagels at 4 a.m. (and you thought your sunrise hike was early). Grab a sandwich for now and a bag for future road food. Since Rapid City and its surrounds are home to hundreds of miles of mountain bike trails, you’ll need the energy.
Using its yeast and wheat for a different purpose, Firehouse Brewing Company, also in Rapid City, creates a surprising variety of brews. From dark to light, hoppy and fragrant to malty and complex, Firehouse’s rotating beers change often and are good representations of each style. As the name suggests, the brewery and restaurant are located in a firehouse with a hundred years of history. While the beers may be normal size, the food is not. Don’t believe us? Give The Tanker a go. When the overfilled plate of slow-smoked ribs and brisket shows up ask for a box. The leftovers will be awesome on one of those bagels.
Even a visit to a winery in South Dakota nets unexpected results. Actually, for an outsider, visiting a winery in SD at all is a little unexpected. In this case, the surprise came in the form of beer. The head winemaker at Prairie Berry Winery , just a short drive south west of Rapid City, is also the Brew Master at Miner Brewing, located next door.
At the winery, fifth generation winemaker Sandi Vojta focuses on fruit that grows locally on the plains. Blueberries, chokeberries, black currants and others (collectively referred to as prairie berries) provide the base, and inspiration for many of her varietals. Next door at Miner Brewing Company, Vojta’s dedication results in standard styles such as a rich oatmeal stout and light-hearted pale lager as well as house specialties like the mango cream ale and a wild plum farmhouse ale (sour beer).
As a national memorial, tourist attraction and movie star, Mount Rushmore tops the list of things to see in SD. A visit to the stone faces typically includes a stop at Carvers Café in the park. Sure there are plenty of salads, sandwiches, and snacks at Carvers, but you’re here for the ice cream. The vanilla ice cream served here is produced locally and based on Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe from the 1780s. Other flavors are not necessarily designed by former U.S. presidents but are tasty nonetheless. If you go for the double scoop expect to do some work getting it eaten before it drips down the side of your cone. As you may have guessed, the servings are roughly the size of Lincoln’s granite nose.
Wall Drug is a popular stop on the way into Badlands National Park. From its extremely modest beginnings in the depression era, the mall/café/tourist attraction—complete with animatronic T-rex and perhaps the single most photographed Jackalope in the lower 48—is now booming with traffic. It’s something that should be experienced rather than explained. The important thing here is the doughnuts. Hauling out a dozen of these giant (of course) pastries is great preparation for your sunrise sojourn to the park. There’s probably not a bad flavor in the bunch, but if they have them, the maple-topped are pretty special.
Finally, after exploring the off-world terrain in the national park and burning through your Wall Drug doughnut, the Cedar Pass Lodge is ready with a Sioux Indian Taco. The ginormous construct is built on a base of fry bread—a dense yet fluffy fried dough—and topped with ground buffalo, refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheddar cheese. There is a list of side dishes. You won’t need them.
RootsRated would like to thank the good folks at the South Dakota Department of Tourism and the Rapid City, Custer, and Deadwood convention and visitor bureaus for their help with the trip. There’s so much more to explore in South Dakota, and we can’t wait to go back to do just that.