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From the endless rolling grasslands of the High Plains of western South Dakota rise two iconic landforms: the Badlands and Black Hills. To be fair, the Black Hills extend into northeastern Wyoming, with the singular Devils Tower looming just beyond. My wife and I spent a few days in the Badlands and Black Hills this past summer.
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It breaks the vast Badlands and Black Hills region into four distinct subregions:. The Badlands run for nearly miles on a southwest-northeast axis. The closest entrance to Badlands National Park , which houses the most dramatic formations, is just east of the small settlement of Scenic, about 50 miles southeast of Rapid City. The park has three units. The Palmer Creek Unit is the smallest and most isolated of the three. The fee gets you a seven-day pass with unlimited entry and exit privileges to any unit.
The Badlands Wall is an imposing escarpment rising up to 1, feet above the prairie.
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Just remember your camera! It connects the Door and Window trailheads with the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead: a mile out-and-back walk over moderately rugged terrain. It terminates at a near-panoramic viewpoint stretching for dozens of miles across the basin-and-range landscape of the southern Badlands. Leave at least 30 minutes for the out-and-back drive from Bombing Range Road, including photo sessions. The main attraction here is a vintage silo complete with a hopefully decommissioned Delta nuclear missile.
Kadoka, population give or take , almost fits the bill. We stayed here one night and had a great, low-key time. The free tasting and tour at Badlands Distillery was the highlight, with generous pours and an impressive variety of liquors and liqueurs down to 50 or 60 proof. Hours are limited, so call ahead for availability. The town of Wall, about 40 miles northwest of Kadoka on I, is a little bigger and much livelier.
Imagine a giant museum gift shop in a dated indoor shopping mall superimposed on an Old West town, with a bunch of weird stuff happening off in the corners. Rapid City has a population of about 67, Rapid City definitely has more to offer than most comparably sized cities not established as year-round vacation towns or anchored by major higher education institutions. The biggest regret of our visit to the Hills was our hurried stay here; due to time constraints, we had to breeze in and out of the city in an afternoon.
Chapel in the Hills is an unexpected little oddity at the base of the Black Hills, not far from central Rapid City. Take a few minutes to contemplate the infinite in the quiet sanctuary, then stroll the grounds and head on your way. Though exhibits skew on the kid-friendly side, the information level is high enough for all but the most knowledgeable adults.
This is the only place in the U. The facility has a slew of interactive features for kids, including a dinosaur dig. It occupies a centrally located superblock in downtown Rapid City and is by far the most popular outdoor staging ground for concerts, rallies, and other public events. Take a spin through its five permanent galleries and past the singular Cyclorama Mural of American History. Check the events calendar ahead of time — the Dahl hosts nearly 1, afternoon and evening events per year, many free to attend.
Joseph Streets. If you plan well in advance, you might even be able to add your own work to the space. You just need to apply for a permit from the city. The Rapid City Arts Council can help facilitate your application from out of town — look them up as soon as your visit is set in stone. The City of Presidents is an outdoor sculpture display that memorializes 43 U. It stretches along Main and St.
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Joseph Streets between 4th and 9th Streets — the block stroll is the perfect length on warm, sunny days. With no admission fee or operating hours, you can check out the City of Presidents at your leisure as you explore downtown Rapid City on foot. Use the interactive map to plan your route.
What to Do in the Black Hills. The Black Hills are a compact, ovoid range of low mountains just west of Rapid City. A small portion of the national forest spills over into Wyoming. As in other parts of the American West, the resultant clashes were violent, persisted for years, and ended with the U. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Black Hills were dominated by logging and mining interests.
The free visitor and information centers offer museum-quality looks at the life and times of Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum, the genius sculptors behind Mount Rushmore, and the larger context in which they worked. It anchors a busy tourist enclave rife with family-friendly attractions and diversions. Precisely what you do in the Mount Rushmore area will depend on the age of your kids if you have any in tow and your budget.
Some ideas:. Some of these attractions are pricey. Crazy Horse Memorial is a successor of sorts to Mount Rushmore. It covers more than 70, acres in the rugged heart of the hills, spanning along with Black Elk Wilderness most of the distance between Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial. If possible, time your visit for September, when the annual Buffalo Roundup draws thousands of visitors and more than 1, bison. Visitors to Black Elk Wilderness get a glimpse of what the Black Hills was like before the arrival of European pioneers.
Black Elk Wilderness is a sacred place. Other than backcountry camping and horseback riding on select trails, most uses are off-limits.
What to Do in Badlands National Park & Surrounding Areas
Budget at least four hours for the out-and-back trip: The summit, not surprisingly, has some of the best views in the Black Hills. Wind Cave is unique for multiple reasons, including two types of super-intricate rock formations — boxwork and frostwork — found almost nowhere else in the world. Entry into the cave is restricted to guided tours, which run roughly from 9am to 5pm most days.
Check the hours page for an up-to-date schedule. Elk Mountain is a fun, not-too-strenuous jaunt that leads to great views. Like Wind Cave, Jewel Cave is accessible by guided tour only.
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Tours are generally first come, first served, and wait times can stretch for up to four hours during the summer. The wait is worthwhile: True to its name, Jewel Cave is quite literally bedazzled with sparkly calcite crystals and other strange formations. The minute Scenic Tour is the most popular option. Starting at I in Spearfish, Highway 14A runs about 20 miles through a twisting, 1,foot-deep ravine with steep, often sheer sides and several notable side canyons perfect for day hikes or pullouts.
Pactola Lake is a manmade reservoir in the central Black Hills. If you plan to spend serious time out on the water, check in with Pactola Pines for kayak, pontoon, and stand up paddle board rentals. Pricing varies depending on boat type and excursion length — call ahead before you book. The periodic Wild West reenactments are well-acted and mostly family friendly. For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lead was a classic mining boomtown, and the town is rife with architectural relics left over from the period. If you ride, Rally is an essential bucket list item — just be prepared to share the road with some , other bikes.
Admission is free, but donations are welcome. Spearfish is the last sizable town heading west on I out of South Dakota. Unlike many Black Hills towns, Spearfish can plausibly claim to be a four-season destination. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery , a free attraction showcasing one of the oldest operating fish hatcheries in the country.
Today the Outdoor Exposition has grown to encompass the entire Rushmore Plaza Civic Center with displays, demonstrations and retail outlets for upwards of vendors. Over the 3 days we average in excess of 12, paid admissions, easily making it the largest of its kind in the State and Region. Please visit our Vendor Listing to see all that we have to offer. In addition to our vendors, the Black Hills Sports Show offers many other fun activities, including trophy deer displays, outdoorsman speakers for adults and kids, and a special Ladies Lane featuring many popular direct sales consultants and local artist.
There is something for everyone at our show! Free kids activities will keep the little ones busy, including a 25 foot climbing wall, balance bike obstacle course, a kids activities room and the CHIPS program. Come on down! You will not be disappointed. Hours: Fri , Sat and Sun Events and Education for the whole family. Non-Profits That Benefit All proceeds benefit these local community organizations.