12 Reasons to Go to South Dakota Right Now

If I had the typical European husband he would want to visit: New York City, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon*.

But I don’t.

Instead, he wants to travel to Boofoo, Colorado; No Mans Land, Wyoming and spots, such as where we visited this past Labor Day weekend, the go-to destination of all the celebs, the place where a run in with J. Lo, Miley and T. Swift is a virtual guarantee – Miami, the Hamptons  — South Dakota.

He wanted to go here partially because well, “Why not?” and South Dakota fits perfectly with his plan to visit all 58 National Parks in the United States as South Dakota has two within two hours of each other. But Wind Cave National Park and the Badlands National Park are not the only things to do in South Dakota and not the only reasons to visit South Dakota, here are more:

1. Two National Parks within 2 Hours of Each Other (I know I stated this above, but I know some of you are scanners.)

Badlands National Park, re-named by the French and reflective of their sentiments concerning the complications in traveling across the area. The Badlands are some of the fastest eroding landscapes on earth making their 244,000 acres of “rugged beauty” ever changing and reminiscent, in my simple mind, of Planet of the Apes.

The second is Wind Cave National Park, the 6th longest cave system in the world, and the end of it has yet to be found. Unlike many caves where the darling feature is stalagmites and stalagmites, Wind Cave is renowned for its boxwork – a honeycomb like geologic feature prominent throughout the cave. Go to the visitor’s center to buy a tour ticket (the only manner to visit the cave.) We went on the 1.5 hour Fairgrounds Tour which was well worth it and plenty sufficient for claustrophobic folks like myself. Go early as tours do fill up.

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Badlands National Park

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Badlands National Park

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Badlands National Park

badlands national park south dakota

Badlands National Park

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Boxwork at Wind Cave National Park

2. See George, Tom, Teddy and Abe

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View of Mt Rushmore from Presidential Trail

Mt. Rushmore will disappoint no one. Even better news – it costs $11 per car to get in and your pass – good with your car only – is valid for 365 days. As we were in the South Dakota Sampling Tour mode i.e. many sights to see and not an abundant amount of time to do so, we did the Presidential Trail at Mt Rushmore which takes you to various points with good views of their Presidential mugs. We did not have time to go to either Visitor’s Center or the Sculptor’s area. which shows exactly how Danish-American Gutzon Borglum went about carving these 60 foot high faces into granite,  but we were able to peek in the Sculptors window and see the original plan was a touch more elaborate than the final execution. Perhaps Gutzon thought 14 years of dynamiting and chipping away at granite was sufficient and George didn’t need a full suit after all.

3. Needles, Tunnels, Lakes, Buffalo

Before heading to So Dak, we consulted with friends who grew up there and others who spent oodles of of time in the area. Interestingly, both seemed more enthused about Custer State Park than either of the National Parks. Custer State Park (shares a border with Wind Cave National Park), houses beautiful reservoirs (check out Center Lake for the beach and Sylvan Lake for beautiful rocks formations and a great walk around the perimeter), buffalo, needles (rocks that look like….you guessed it), tunnels of stone and spectacular views of the surrounding area. Hit Mt. Coolidge lookout to see Crazy Horse Monument, Mt. Rushmore and an overlook of the park. Bring a quarter to look through their viewers.

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The Needles, Custer State Park

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Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park

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Tunnel, Custer State Park

4. Car-Henge

My most cherished travel memories are those where I happen upon a magical and completely unexpected site or experience. Car-Henge, a few miles north of Alliance, Nebraska fit this bill exquisitely. Our drive back to Denver  involved traversing the entire state of Nebraska on various two lane highways. (We had no real choice in small roads vs. big highways, but even if we did, the smaller highways, speed limit 65, are gobs more enjoyable.)

A few miles north of Alliance we drove past Car-Henge. Car-Henge, built as a memorial to the artist’s father on his father’s farm, is a replica of Stone Henge but made with with 39 cars of various models, makes and eras in stead of stones. Other, car art includes “The Fourd Seasons” a representation of growing of wheat in the summer, spring, fall and winter. It is free to visit, has a gift shop to pick up goodies and is a gem not be missed.

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The Fourd Seasons, Car-henge

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The Fourd Seasons, Car-henge

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5. Fields of Sunflowers to Entertain on Your Road Trip

To the road trippers delight, eastern Wyoming and southern South Dakota’s rolling hills are frequently covered in rows and rows and rows of sunflowers. Pictures below are sunflowers from the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation.

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Sunflowers, Pine Ridge Native American Reservation


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Sunflowers, Pine Ridge Native American Reservation

6. Learn about Native Americans

I find myself increasingly infuriated as I travel around the United States, by not only what the “white man” (i.e. Europeans and those of European decent) did to Native Americans, but how we now spin this historic and ongoing human and cultural genocide. Point of interest after point of interest discusses, with bravado and pride, how this is the location some white European-decent dude conquered this or claimed that, not ever mentioning the “taking” came, and still comes, with enormous cultural and human decimation.

This was evident in the Badlands (the Native Americans claim this as their land, the National Park Service as theirs). We see this traveling through the “Reservations” where the land around the borders of the reservation is fertile while the land within it is sparse and barren. I saw this on a recent trip to Mackinac Island in Michigan where there are “Points of Interest” showing a smiling Native American taking to (submitting to?) the religion the missionaries were seemingly cramming down their throats. (Cramming down the throats part not shown or discussed as that would make us all look like ninnies and who wants to tell, that history?)

In Southern South Dakota you can see Wounded Knee, the site where in December 1890 the Sioux chief Big Foot and some 350 of his followers ultimately fell to U.S. and as a result ended the “Indian Wars”. The site feels, as the entire reservation does, unkept, unloved and hopeless, and I mean this feeling is in addition to its bloody history. But, perhaps seeing and understanding this alone – is part of understanding their prior and current day struggles – the history all of the points of interest and roadside placards would rather then nor us acknowledge.

7. Spend $61.10 on three nights of accommodations

Three nights and three different campgrounds.

Night #1 was at the Wind Cave National Park campground. Never in our wildest did we think on a holiday weekend it would be a third full at 10 pm – but it was. The night sky alone is worth the trip. ($18 / night)

Night #2 Fort Welikit Family Campground. I typically avoid private campgrounds. I find them to be a bit too RV-tastic for me, but Fort Welikit is well-run with cheerful staff, quiet and has areas designated specifically for tents. ($22/night)

Night #3 Cedar Pass Campground in Badlands National Park.

Pros: Great views and in the park.

Cons: The showers have some whack venting which makes you feel as if you are not in the middle of a natural treasure and hundreds of miles from a major U.S. city – but sleeping on a factory floor. To add to the adventure, when the park was full, we let a family with two small kids camp on our campsite. While we sat outside and tried to ignore the factory wheezing behind us, they shined the lights of their SUV in our faces for 45 minutes while they set up camp. #natureislosingitsnature  ($21.10)

8. Buy alcohol and avocados at the same place!

Dear Colorado,

True Story: In South Dakota and Nebraska, I can buy my watermelon and wine in the same place! Dudes, I swear to God. No joke. Isn’t that just totally fruity? You know what is nuttier? I saw zero evidence of Nebraskans or South Dakotans falling into drunken hysterics or their communities in shambles as result. Both states just kind of seem to go on their own happy way all the while selling booze and baked goods all in the same locale. It is like convenience and acknowledgement it is the 21st century all in one shebang.



9. Ghost Towns

Dotting the landscape of South Dakota and Nebraska are vacated wooden buildings, houses and communities where the prior tenants appear to have left involuntarily and where their broken memories and dream seem to still live amongst the peeling paint and wild grasses now residing in the rooms they did.

Pictured below: An abandoned saloon in the ironically named Scenic, South Dakota – the entire town recently purchased under a cloud of mystery by a secretive Filipino Church for $800,000. Catch it on the way to Badlands National Park.

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Longhorn Saloon, Scenic, South Dakota

10. See that Montana is not the only space to revel in big sky country

Another plus to this area of the country, miles and miles and miles of big, big sky.

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South Dakota big, big sky

11. See more bighorn sheep in 15 miles than I have seen in Colorado in 15 years

The Bandlands Loop is a road, running east to west, across much of the park. The western end of it is a well groomed gravel road and the eastern end is paved. We took the western, paved road, to the point where paved meets gravel which is also where you will find one of the highlights of the road and best views. (It was called Panorama Point if I am remembering correctly.) However, another highlight are the many bighorn sheep, highly accustomed to cars and people, who come close to or are often on the side of the road.

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Bighorn Sheep, Badlands Loop, Badlands National Park

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Bighorn Sheep, Badlands Loop, Badlands National Park

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Bighorn Sheep, Badlands Loop, Badlands National Park

12. The Other Sites to See I Didn’t Have Time For

On the 48 hour South Dakota Sampler tour, we had time for a lot but not for enough. Next time I go, I will make sure to check out Deadwood, South Dakota. The town based on a show, I have never seen, but rumored to be downright adorable. The Mickelson Trail a 114 mile bike trail from Deadwood to Edgemont. It passes through countless sites – hills, tunnels, pastures, converted railroad bridges, national forest, granite walls and 100+ miles of South Dakota. And I would also take a stroll around the downtown of Rapid City. We drove through on our way to eat Nepalese / Indian at The Everest Cuisine outside of the area. From what we saw it looks like a modern and charming little area with shops, bars and restaurants.

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