The landscape of South Dakota's Black Hills makes it the perfect destination for sightseers and nature-lovers alike. It's lesser-known, but totally gorgeous for scenic drives and incredible views. One of the most epic routes in all of South Dakota? The Needles Highway. Thought impossible to build, thanks to the rocky "needles" of solid granite studding the landscape, it took several years (and some dynamite) to craft a road that winds among (and sometimes tunnels through) the rocky route. It's a one-of-a-kind drive that offers sightseers and those looking to head a bit off the beaten highway a chance to experience the rugged, almost-untamable Black Hills of South Dakota.
Located right in the Black Hills in Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake was created in 1881. This is the perfect starting point for your trip to The Needles and other, stellar surrounding attractions. Rent a paddleboat, rock climb, swim, or hike around the lake for a few hours of fun, although the stop could easily turn into a whole day's experience. Pictures don't do this lake justice, and the fact that it's a popular wedding destination that was also featured in "National Treasure 2" is the proof!
It'll take about an hour to travel the iconic 14-mile Needles Highway, a drive that winds through the forests and mountains of South Dakota. Stops recommended include Sylvan Lake and the Needle’s Eye. You'll want to take your time while driving the road, which features cliffs, tunnels, and even mountain goats and big-horned sheep! The highway winds through Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park, so you'll have the opportunity to take in many popular South Dakota attractions along the way. It's typically open from early April through mid-October, and there's a $20/vehicle entrance fee to Custer State Park.
Custer State Park
Custer State Park is a 71,000-acre gem of Black Hills beauty. From its early days, when gold prospectors flooded in hoping to strike it rich, to President Calvin Coolidge's love for the park, it's seen a lot of history. Visit the log cabin that was once home to Badger Clark, South Dakota's first poet laureate; stop into the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center and learn about the unique wildlife here (including the 1,300 bison who roam the area); and hike the many trails. There are lots of amenities, including lodges, camping, an archery range, and tons more, which mean that it's super easy to spend a full and exciting weekend here.
The Purple Pie Place
When traveling to Mount Rushmore or the surrounding area during the summer and fall, The Purple Pie Place is the spot to be. They have served hundreds of slices of pies of all kinds since 2009, ranging from simple peanut butter to raspberry-rhubarb jalapeno; they've also whipped up all kinds of entrees, such as chicken pot pie and mac & cheese. They sell ice cream, sandwiches, and more, making it a must-stop for a homemade meal or snack that won't hurt your wallet. Stop for a full meal after a long day on the road, or a quick and tasty dessert that won't disappoint... plus, who doesn't love supporting a local family-run business?
Jewel Cave National Monument
Over 180 miles of passages make up Jewel Cave, the third-longest cave in the world! President Theodore Roosevelt named it a national monument in 1908 after two brothers discovered the calcite crystal-filled wonder. Take the scenic tour, which lasts close to an hour and a half, to see the crystals and other spectacles of the cave, or go for the lantern tour in the summer, which is a bit longer and feels like a 1940s style adventure. There's also the discovery talk, perfect for children of all ages, and it includes a brief history lesson in one of the cave rooms. Plan for an early start to your day when visiting (or make a reservation), as tours typically fill up before noon, and don't forget your jacket because, after all, it is cooler underground.
Wind Cave National Park
For those with hopes to see lots of bison, wild turkeys, and other unique native animals on their South Dakota adventure, Wind Cave National Park is the stop to make! Stay right in the Black Hills at Elk Mountain Campground to experience the beauty of these lands, and while there are no electrical hookups, there is plenty of room for RVs, and the grounds are much quieter than most campgrounds in the area. There are over 30 miles of hiking trails at the park, which range from easy to strenuous, in addition to the fabulous cave below, which you can explore with either easy, moderate, or more difficult tours. Get there early to assure your spot on any of the tours, which are typically offered once or twice a day in the afternoon; note that this cave does NOT take reservations!
The Mammoth Site
Around 26,000 years ago, a cavern at The Mammoth Site collapsed, resulting in a sinkhole about 65 feet deep. This active dig site has a current count of 61 mammoths found, and offers tours of the sinkhole itself. Your admission cost includes the guided tour, an introductory video, and entrance into the exhibit hall. This stop is perfect for a rainy or cold day on your trip, and is both educational and fascinating... how often do you get the opportunity to see mammoth fossils and loads of ancient bones?
The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary came about when an Oregon rancher saved the money to purchase land where he could save captured mustangs the Bureau of Land Management had deemed too old, weak, or ugly to be adopted. Now, hundreds of wild horses roam the grounds. A variety of options for your visit are available, including a photography tour, a guided bus tour, or even a "Mustang Meadows Experience," which involves a three-hour tour with the option for an upgraded rustic log cabin stay. All of the tour options help with the care of these wild animals and are sure to offer an experience to remember!
From granite needles to calcite crystals, the wild beauty in the Black Hills is virtually endless. Admire the bison and wild horses that roam today, see the remains of the mammoths that once called the area home, and hike and drive through the unique landscape as you soak up the history and the wild and free atmosphere.
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