We did a very very long day through the Black Hills of South Dakota. It would probably make more sense to hit all these places over the course of a week or weekend. But, in a pinch, you can get up early, stay up late, do a lot of driving, and do it all in a day.
Stop 1 Wall Drug-
Located in Wall, SD, Wall drug has been open since the 1930s. It started as a small drug store that advertised free ice water to weary travelers during the Great Depression. Today, this roadside attraction is bringing in two million visitors a year. There are road signs for hundreds of miles in both directions along I-90. So what exactly is Wall Drug? Well, it’s a lot of things. It’s a restaurant that seats 530 people. It’s an art gallery; the largest privately owned Western art collection in the country. It’s an arcade and a place for kids to pan for gold and gemstones. There’s an animatronic life size T-rex. It’s a small mall. You can visit a bookstore, pick up Western apparel, hats, and boots. Shop for Black Hills gold or Native American Jewelry. There’s a camping store, a toy store, and a shop selling rocks and fossils. Of course, there’s still a drug store and free ice water as well. They are known for homemade donuts and 5 cent coffee. If you are a veteran or on your honeymoon, your coffee and doughnut are on the house. I thought that Wall Drug was going to be a tourist trap with overpriced t shirts and keychains. I was wrong. It was worth the stop. It’s so big, you may need to reference the posted maps to see everything. The products they carry are quality and the prices are reasonable. We bought cowboy boots, a couple camping items we needed, had lunch (bison hotdogs), and visited the fudge shop. We had a great time.
Stop 2 Custer State Park- Near Custer South Dakota, lies Custer State Park. Custer is the second largest state park in America. It is composed of 73,000 acres and is known for it’s abundant wildlife. Within minutes of entering the park, we saw the park’s burro. After a stop to a ranger station, we knew which area to find a herd of bison. They keep a big wooden board up to show the most recent sightings.
Use good judgement in the park. Do not try to pet the “fluffy cows.” They can go from docile to aggressive very quickly. The herd we saw had lots of baby bison. I loved seeing them nurse and explore. But, obviously mama bison are protective and enormous. So, use common sense and don’t approach the wildlife. They are not tame.
After that, we spotted big horn sheep. It was an incredible experience. This park is popular with UTVs. You can also horseback ride, hike, and rock climb in this amazing park. We chose to take the Wildlife Loop Drive to make the most of our short time in the park. The 17 mile loop road takes about 45 minutes to drive depending on how often you have to stop for bison in the road.
There are also cut-off roads that will take you to nearby attractions like Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial.
Stop 3 Iron Mountain Road- We decided to take Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore. This 17 mi road is an experience all on it’s own. There are 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 pigtails (places with 360 degree turns), and 3 one-lane tunnels. It is CRAZY. I grew up in West Virginia. I am very familiar with winding mountain roads. This is in a category all to itself. The 17 miles takes about 45 minutes to drive. It is very popular with motorcyclists because of the scenic cruising speeds and fun route to ride.
I was understandably carsick when we arrived at Mount Rushmore. But, I’m glad for the experience. It was a wild ride.
Stop 4 Mount Rushmore
We visited Mount Rushmore on July 5th. This is a great time to go because we avoided the Independence day crowds but, they were still having special programs the next day. President Roosevelt and President Jefferson impersonators were doing talks and signing autographs all day. There were also Lakota hoop dancers giving a presentation. If you go to Rushmore in the evening, you can attend the lighting ceremony. It includes a ranger talk, film, and illumination of the sculpture while the National Anthem is played. There’s a hike, a self guided audio tour, a museum, and a bookstore to explore all day as well.
Stop 5- Crazy Horse Memorial
The Crazy Horse Memorial is a mountain carving under construction. It depicts the Oglala Lakota Warrior- Crazy Horse. When finished, it will show him on horseback pointing in the distance. Onsite is a large museum complex, a restaurant, and a gift shop. The must-see here, other than the sculpture of course, is the video shown in the visitor center. It is really well done. It explains the legacy of the Ziolkowsky family and their commitment to honoring the culture and heritage of the American Indian. Many people don’t know before visiting that there is a University onsite as well. The Indian University of North America has been operating for eleven years and has had students representing over 40 native nations and 20 states. Cultural performances are scheduled nearly everyday at the Crazy Horse complex. There are dancer, singers, art demonstrations, and more.
Stop 6 Wind Cave National Park
We arrived at Wind Cave just before the Visitor Center closed for the day. I slipped in to grab a map and get some quick advice from a ranger. Most people visit Wind Cave because it is one the longest and most complex caves in the world. Boxwork formations are a rare formation rarely seen anywhere. But, we weren’t coming for the cave, we were coming for what we could see above the surface. We spotted more bison, prairie dogs, and huge mule deer. We were there in the evening, which is a great time to see animals. My favorite sighting was a beautiful coyote. It was a great way to end our long day.
We visited Wind Cave in July, but in the fall you can hear the elk herds bugling. You also have a chance to see the endangered black footed ferret. Considered the rarest animal in North America, 10% of the world’s ferret population lives in Wind Cave National Park.
The Black Hills were thrilling and exhausting. We drove home through an epic South Dakota thunderstorm and fell asleep to the sounds of rain on the RV roof.