A Spectacular Road Trip Through South Dakota
By Suzanne Stavert
Many people seem to leave The Dakotas for last when trying to visit every state in the U.S. I think that’s a big mistake! This area of the country is spectacular, with nature so abounding and incredible, you almost can't believe it’s real.
Traveling the U.S. by car is so much more personal than flying from one large urban city to another. Our South Dakota road trip enabled us to experience these beautiful landscapes at a leisurely pace.
We seem to rush through everything these days, so I was pretty happy to slow down in magnificent surroundings like these. My advice is to fly into Rapid City, South Dakota, and then road trip from here to see this beautiful and unique state. I have no doubt you’ll leave there as enamored by it as I was.
As you drive around the final bend in the highway before the exit, the magnificent presidential faces of Mount Rushmore suddenly appear in the distance— as if they were dropped from the sky. It was so impressive! We stood in awe of this engineering marvel. Mount Rushmore’s construction began in 1927 by sculptor Gutzon Borglum with the dedication of George Washington's head three years later. Considering the equipment at the time was nothing like what we have today, it makes this massive memorial even more remarkable.
Before each evening's lighting ceremony, there is a fascinating, pre-recorded message that explains why Borglum chose these presidents, significant historical references to their presidencies, and other interesting facts.
After the message, we all seemed to rise in unison to sing the National Anthem. All hats came off, hands covered hearts, and we sang. When we finished, you could have heard a pin drop, and many of us were wiping away a tear. The Lighting Ceremony takes place every evening, so make sure you stay long enough to experience this. Check the website for accurate start times.
Custer State Park
Located in the famous Black Hills, Custer State Park is a South Dakota State Park and wildlife reserve. South Dakota’s first state park is named after famous Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer.
One of our first stops in the Park was the incomparable Sylvan Lake. We arrived just after a small rain shower, and the sky was clear and the lake incredibly still. The mirror image of the enormous boulders above and below on the water was magical. I kept thinking, "Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this place?" Nearly speechless, I stood in silent awe.
Nearby Custer State Park, you can easily drive over to see the Crazy Horse Memorial. This monument is a work in progress, but worthy of a stop along your road trip.
The Needles Highway
Next on our route through Custer State Park was
The Needles Highway. The rock formations are other-worldly! This 14-mile highway, built in 1922, leads to the granite spire. It’s a super curvy scenic route, and yes, I took some Dramamine.
The "Needle" sits at the entrance to the Needles Eye Tunnel, and the area is full of cars and people taking photos of this natural wonder. How I managed to get a picture without a tourist in it is literally a miracle. As for the tunnel, it’s just like the eye of a needle. The passage is extremely narrow, so only one car can pass through at a time, and you can literally touch the tunnel’s walls.
Badlands National Park
The Badlands Loop Scenic Byway covers roughly 40 miles of a two-lane road past craggy, pale, sandy canyons that look much like the surface of a barren planet. The loop takes about two hours, depending how often and how long you stop.
You can almost feel the canyons' slow erosion as the winds swirl about. Stunning photographic possibilities here are endless. Depending upon the light and shadows, the view could be entirely different from day to day or even hour to hour. I absolutely loved it here!
Deadwood and the Old West
For fans of the Old West, a stop in Deadwood, SD is a must! Rich with a history of gunslingers, gold diggers, and gamblers, much of the town looks as it did in 1876.
We agreed it was a fun way to spend the afternoon strolling through the old buildings and soaking up the fun atmosphere.
You can't go to any place in the Midwest or beyond without seeing a billboard or sign advertising Wall Drug. Over a million people each year visit this massive tourist attraction—and nearly 20,000 on a summer day.
Although it is a bit cheesy and kitschy, it was still a super fun, almost inexplicable place where you can find everything from toothpaste to cowboy boots and enjoy a soda fountain treat, a piece of blueberry pie, and the famous “free water”.
Until recently, I wouldn't have called myself a road tripper. But I stepped out of my typical luxury resort itinerary life, and was rewarded with stunning views that I never knew existed.
Every outing felt like Christmas, as every turn on the road was like opening yet another precious gift.
Photos (Clockwise from left): The carving of Crazy Horse
Mountain continues; Sylvan Lake was like a mirror; Hiking through the rocks at Sylvan Lake;
You can buy everything from toothpaste to cowboy boots at Wall Drug, a historic landmark;
Rock formations like The Needle were abundant in Custer State Park; Badlands Landscape;
Rich with a history of gunslingers, gold diggers, and gamblers, much of Deadwood looks like it 43 did in 1876