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Black Hills and Badlands: The Bucket List

Readers reveal their favorite Black Hills and Badlands destinations including where Dance With Wolves was filmed, Wild Bill Hickok got shot, and the McFurthest Spot in the United States.  Oh, and there are a couple of must-see parks and monuments…

Black Hills And Badlands South Dakota

The first time we traveled through the Black Hills and Badlands area of South Dakota we went straight for the main attractions; Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and Custer State Park.  Exploring the rugged landscape in our truck camper and seeing these famous sites in person was such a thrill.

After that experience, we mentally checked South Dakota off our bucket list.  Been there, done that, right?

Reading through the following reader recommendations, we clearly missed a lot of must-see destinations.  First on my list is the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in Philip, South Dakota.  How did we pass that?

Next I want to visit Deadwood and see the infamous chair where Wild Bill Hickok got played his last hand.  The entire town is designated a National Historic Landmark District.

In Badlands National Park, we both want to see, ‘The Door’ through, ‘The Wall’.  And Stan Johnson almost has me convinced that we need to visit Meadow, South Dakota; aka the McFarthest Spot in the United States.  Wait, what?

How did we miss all these attractions on our first pass through?  We didn’t know about them!  Thank you, TCM readers.  South Dakota is back on the list.

Mark Dyvig
2001 Ford F250
1969 Avion

I used to spend my summers in the area with my grandparents; Grandma Marty from my TCM article, “8,926 Miles In Grandma’s Tire Tracks”.   We stayed at Legion Lake because my grandparents were campground attendants taking care of Legion, Blue Bell, and Center Lake.

Below Legion Lake is the home of Charles Badger Clark, South Dakota’s poet laureate.  His poems reflect his love for The West, especially for the majesty and beauty of the Black Hills.  It is just a cabin in the hills, but you can witness the simple life which inspired his love of writing and the area.

Mt Rushmore Visit Dyvig

Everyone goes to Mount Rushmore, but few stay for the night lighting.  You should stay for that show.  Additionally, take the trail to the foot of Rushmore, looking straight up at those mighty figures.  Seeing where those men labored to transpose the granite into art is inspiring.

Mystic Hills Camp Site South Dakota

I would also send you to Mystic Hills Hideaway.  It is south of Deadwood; just off 385.  We stayed at Mystic Hills Hideaway while visiting and rented an ATV for the day.

ATV Riding Black HIlls South Dakota

ATVs are a great way to see the backcountry and beauty of the hills and deep woods.  Visit the fire towers, small out of the way towns, and enjoy the outdoors.

Custer Peak Fire Tower South Dakota

Above: Custer Peak Fire Tower, South Dakota

The camping area is clean.  The shower/bath house was spotless.  And the restaurant served some of the best food you will find in the Black Hills.

Mystic Hills Lodge South Dakota

During the winter you can rent snowmobiles and explore.  You can also stay at any of the campgrounds in Custer National Park; Blue Bell, Center Lake (remote), Legion or the Lodge.

Hiking boots are always advised as you will find many places to hike; Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Needle’s Eye, Sylvan Lake trails, and Cathedral Spires just to name a few.  If you like to ride horses there are many places to ride.

My best advice is to take your time and spend more than a couple of days.  If you spend ten days, each day would have something new to do.

Ralph Goff (aka Ramblin’ Ralph)
2006 GMC 2500HD
2001 Lance 845

I camped eight nights in the Black Hills area in mid-September, 2015.  I had never been that far east and I’m mighty glad I went.  It is loaded with beautiful scenery and plenty of US Forest Service campgrounds.

Lance Camper With Mt Rushmore In Background

This will probably be mentioned by many others, but I was most impressed with the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.  What a mind boggling feat!  There’s a beautiful visitors center with various displays and a short video of the project.  Take the walk that goes below the carvings to get a real feel for the magnitude of it all.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

My second favorite thing was the Minuteman National Historic Site Visitor Center and the nearby old missile site (with a dummy missile).

The Historic Site had many interesting displays, including a map of the hundreds of missile sites in the Great Plains area and a display describing the several near misses of the United States getting into a nuclear war.  I didn’t go to the nearby launch facility since it required advance reservations.

Bob Lick
2003 Dodge 3500
1993 Alpenlite 11′ SK

Dances With Wolves Film Site

There is a little park with waterfalls on the dirt road into the location where the winter scene of Dances with Wolves was filmed.  It is on a road off of Spearfish Canyon Road.  It is marked.  The little park is seen first and then the filming location is a bit further in.

Waterfall In Spearfish Canyon

Above: Waterfall in Spearfish Canyon

At the Number 10 Saloon in Deadwood you can see the chair where Wild Bill Hickok was sitting when he was killed.  Upstairs is the Deadwood Social Club where I have had outstanding dining experiences.  This is a pickup/drop-off location for the Deadwood town shuttle.  It’s very convenient.

We stayed at Whistler Gulch RV Park in Deadwood.

Dave and Jenney Kiel
2007 Toyota Tundra
2012 Phoenix Custom Camper

Jenney And David Kiel

West of Cedar Pass Campground in Badlands National Park is a long circuit hike of several connected trails that offer you the best of the Badlands.  You start on Saddle Pass Trail with a climb up the through The Wall.  The Badlands are often referred to as The Wall since their long line of deeply eroded bluffs in the grasslands act as a wall.

Saddle Pass Trail is short, but is a fairly intimidating steep climb to intercept Castle and Medicine Root Trails.  These flat trails offer a long loop hike deep into the prairie of mixed grasslands interspersed with views of other Badland formations off in the distance.

The wide-open scenery on top is stunning and allows you to see the rawness of the wind swept prairie.  During this hike, we were caught in a powerful hailstorm that also made us appreciate the power of nature and our own insignificance.  After the storm, the short drop back down through Saddle Pass was doubly scary since the thin layer of mud was like ice.

Along Medicine Root Trail Badlands

Above: Along Medicine Root Trail

The last remains of the hailstorm that caught us out and exposed on the prairie after it moved on east.

Saddle Pass Trail South Dakota

Just northeast of Cedar Pass Campground is a series of short but fun and stunning hikes.  Our two favorites were The Notch and Door Trails.  The Notch is fun because of the long ladder climb and steep drop offs.  It is not for those with fear of heights.

The Door Trail is a short official hike that is an easy three-quarters of a mile marked round trip.  It leads you to, “The Door” in the Wall.  Here the trail ends, but passing through, “The Door” and extending your hike is allowed and well worth it.

We passed through, “The Door” near sunset and enjoyed a multi-spectral display as the sun set with its increasing red hues painting the rocks.  Hike at your own risk beyond, “The Door”.  If you’re out there in the dark, have good lights and navigation skills to get back.

Door In The Wall Door Trail Badlands National Park

Above: The last glow from the sun in the tortured landscape beyond, “The Door”.

Climbing Along The Notch Trail

Above: Climbing along the Notch Trail

Our first night at Badlands National Park was spent at Sage Creek Campground.  During dinner buffalos made a leisurely grass-munching pass through our campsite.

The next nights were spent at the more centrally located Cedar Pass Campground where we explored the more traditional areas of the Badlands.  But, we enjoyed Sage Creek so much we wanted another night on the grasslands.  So, we had our first truck camping boondock experience on the windswept prairie of Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.

Faint two track trails crisscross it and you can camp anywhere.  Just be sure to close any gates you open.  The sky that night was fantastic with long-range views of distant Badland formations.

Buffalo Gap National Grassland Phoenix Camper

Above: Our first boondock experience in our brand new truck camper in Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

Allen Brummel
2013 Ram 2500
2016 Northstar 650SC

We especially like the ruggedness and the wildlife of the Badlands.  We never tire of spending time there and driving through from both directions.

Sage Creek Area South Dakota

We have camped in the main campground by the visitors center and a couple times in the free Sage Creek campground on the back side of the park.  We have also camped in the national forest campgrounds and state park campgrounds in the Black Hills.

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

We also really like the barren, wide open dispersed camping in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.  We have also dispersed camped within sight of one of the former missile silos.

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

Those sunsets and sunrises out on the prairie are something else.  Naturally the caves, Custer State Park, Needles Highway, and Mount Rushmore are must-sees.

Frank Roelke
1975 Ford F-250
1975 Maple Leaf

Narrow Tunnels Black Hills South Dakota

I recommend Custer State Park, the Needles Highway, and the Iron Mountain Road drives.  They are scary as heck at times, but very cool.

Bison Herd Black Hills South Dakota

The best place to see is Mt. Rushmore.  Crazy Horse is also very cool.  It’s impressive for a non-government endeavor.  Take the bus tour to the base.  We also went to Wind Cave National Park.

Wind Cave National Park Maple Leaf Camper

We stayed at Beaver Lake Campground west of Custer.  It’s a very nice place.  We usually get a tent site because we don’t care about hookups and the tent sites are more private.  It was clean, convenient, and we met some very cool people.

Bill Harr
2005 Toyota Tundra
2013 Four Wheel Camper Hawk

Bill Harr Family Mt Rushmore South Dakota

Mount Rushmore is a must visit park.  If you are taking kids, Hills City KOA is the place for you.  Our trip was taken with our daughter and grandkids.  They had reservations at the KOA since they have a large RV and wanted hook-ups.

Hills City KOA near Mt Rushmore

I would not normally stay at a KOA since I like to boondock; no hook-ups needed.  Hills City is a pricey campground, but they do have lots of activities for the kids; a pool, water slide, climbing wall and bounce area.

Charles Coushaine
2001 Ford F350
2012 Chalet DS116RB

Mt Rushmore Coushaine Family

We took a trip with our son, Charlie, and his wife, Jess, to the Badlands back in 2013.  As our luck would have it, the United States Government was in a shut down and the park was officially closed.

Badlands National Park Welcome Sign

However, when we approached the entrance to the Badlands, the orange cones blocking the entrance had been moved and we were able to drive right in.  What was particularly great was that no one was there, and I was able to fly my drone.  Please note that drones are no longer permitted in any national park.

Watch my video to see the spectacular sights in the Badlands:

Don’t miss stopping at the famous nearby tourist stops on Route 90 including Wall Drug and the Corn Palace.  These were great places to stop!

Corn Palace South Dakota

We camped with our son, who was in the Air Force at Ellsworth Air Force Base, which is nearby.

Frank Niehus
2007 Ford F-350
2007 Arctic Fox 1150

It was the time of the eclipse.  We have a small airplane and were planning to fly to Alliance, Nebraska from southeast of Denver with the Colorado Pilots Association.  They had 50 airplanes signed up with a total of 265 to fly into alliance in two to three hours.  It sounded like an accident waiting to happen, so we decided to throw the camper on and arrive a day ahead.  After the eclipse we went to the Badlands.

North Just Out Of Alliance Was Carhenge

We drove all back roads with no traffic.  North just out of Alliance was Carhenge.  Then we traveled through the town of Scenic before entering the Badlands.

Buffalo Came Into Campground

We camped at the free campsite called Buffalo Gap, which was interesting.  It was mostly tents, but there were some motorhomes and campers.

We meet a couple from New Zealand.  We were sitting and having a few beers with them when a herd of about 100 buffalo worked their way toward us.  We just sat there and they walked within ten-feet of us.

Buffalo So Close To Camper

Then someone spooked them and they turned.  Their stampede was quite a noise and sound of power.  They didn’t go far and then worked their way back around the opposite side of the camper.

The next day we drove through the Badlands to the interstate and stopped at the missile sites, which were very interesting.  Be sure you stop at the one you can look down into and spend time with the ranger.  He had a lot of great knowledge about the Cold War and all the silos.

Then we visited Wall Drug, which is a huge place.  You can stay overnight for free in the parking lot.  We pulled up on west side and were about 15 feet from the railroad tracks. Would you believe that not even one train came through that night?

The next morning we took the scenic road south and ended up meeting the same road we came in on.  It then took us via gravel roads west to Wind Cave.  All the gravel roads were good except through the Indian reservation for about 18 miles.

Hot springs is a really cool old town.  It has a fossil museum which is worth visiting.  You can watch them dig.  Hot Springs was having a weekend balloon festival when we visited.  The next morning they were having a dozen hot air balloons leaving the airport.

Hot Air Balloons Black Hills South Dakota

We drove out that evening and spent the night at the airport.  Being a pilot we know airports usually have space and a nice place to camp for free.  Not a person was around and no indication of the next morning’s event.

About 5:30am we heard sounds and one lonely camper we parked next to started his generator to make coffee.  I looked out to see the field full of cars.  The field next to us was full of balloons getting ready to be filled with air.  It’s always a very picturesque thing to see.

About noon we headed south down to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument.  It’s in the middle of nowhere, but it was well worth our drive because it was on our way home via backroads.

They had one room filled with items given to the rancher from the Indian chief he became friends with over the years.  That was very interesting to see the items he got from the chief.  It was a four day ride for the chief to get to the ranch from their reservation.

Mountain Goats Black Hills South Dakota

There are at hundreds of other points of interest like Fort Laramie, High Plains Heritage Center, and more.  You could easily spend another week in the area.  We went 1,000 miles and we were out about ten days, including the eclipse.  We had been to Custer and the Black Hills before so we didn’t head up in that direction.  If you haven’t seen Mt. Rushmore, the whole area can take a month to see.

In the summer it can be very hot, so try to go early or late in the season.  We didn’t have any place to plug-in for the air conditioner, but it cooled off at night.

Philip Tron
2009 Chevy 3500
2012 Lance 1050

Obviously Mount Rushmore is a place to visit.  Crazy Horse is more of a tourist trap.  Crazy Horse never allowed a photo, painting, or drawing of himself because it would steal his soul, so no one knows what he looked like.  It never gets finished, but collects admission.  I worked with a number of Native Americans who wouldn’t go there, even though it was free for them.

Deadwood isn’t the only town in the area.  There are a few excellent cafes and sporting goods stores in some of the smaller towns in or near the Black Hills.

Reptile Gardens are a must see.  Wind Cave National Park is great for those who haven’t seen many bison.  The cave tour is very similar to all cave tours.

When entering Custer State Park, ask questions about tunnels.  Not that many years ago, I took a wrong turn and we found ourselves at a tunnel that didn’t have enough clearance for our truck camper.  We were able to turn around because my wife was a good flag person and we did a lot of jockeying.  Have the person at the part entrance mark any potential trouble spots on the map they hand you.

Prairie dog population control isn’t snakes, coyotes, or raptors.  It’s a disease called Sylvatic Plague.  Be very careful not to contact any small rodents because the fleas can infect humans.  If you develop flu symptoms after being near prairie dogs, go to a doctor and tell him about the western rodents you were close to.

Also be aware that bison are not domestic.  They are so big, strong, and fast, so there is no need for them to be smart.  There is no telling when one will take you for a threat.

George Visconti
2015 GMC Sierra 3500
2016 Arctic Fox 990

Lake Canoe Black Hills South Dakota

While we were in the Black Hills, we canoed on Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park.  It’s not a real big lake, but the rock formations were really unique.

Jackalope On The Wall

Go to the fur shop on Main Street in Custer.  Watch out for Jackalope on The Wall.  We stayed at the KOA in Custer.  The staff are great and they have a good chef cooking up great food.

Bison statue in town

There are several buffalo sculptures in downtown Custer.  There is also a really nice fur shop in downtown that has hides and fur from many different animals.  One was  even from an arctic fox.

I also recommend the tunnels on the Needles Highway.  Bring your camera and a good pair of binoculars.

Jim Jensen
2011 Ram 3500
2009 Lance 830

We headed east on I-90 for a Lance Camper rally in Ponca State Park, Nebraska.  We had planned on a few extra days for the drive and knew we would find some interesting things to see.

We had to stop in Sturgis and visit the Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame.  I was impressed with the beauty of the machines that were on display.  We then headed west on Alt 14 up to Deadwood and took 385 south to Mount Rushmore.

One of the stops we made was south of Mount Rushmore.  It is called Hot Springs, South Dakota.  The maps show a few low clearance tunnels in the area.  My truck camper loaded height is 11 feet 3 inches and would not clear three of the lowest tunnels in the area on Highway 87.  We opted to head east on 40 and then south on 79 headed to Hot Springs so that we could avoid the problem.

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota was a very worth while visit.  In 1974 a land developer began to excavate for a housing development and exposed a number of old bones.  One thing led to another and the site was eventually deeded to a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the Mammoth sinkhole.  A building was constructed over the top of the dig to climate control the contents.

The dig continues to this day and it is estimated that more lays at the bottom of the sinkhole than has been currently uncovered.  The bones are not fossilized.  It was a day long adventure that was very worth our time.

Bob Peterson
2008 Chevy Silverado 2500HD
2015 Northstar Laredo

Crazy Horse Book Mari Sandoz

Badlands National Park is a very special place, especially when there’s a full moon.  Get out for sunset and then watch for moon rise.

The Badlands and Black Hills are good places to grasp the Plain’s Indian culture.  You need time for Crazy Horse, seeing a buffalo herd, and going to the carving museum.  Soak it up!

Watch for overpass heights.  I also recommend you read, “Crazy Horse” by Mari Sandoz before and while in the Badlands.

Stan Johnson
2009 GMC 2500
2009 Northstar Laredo

I grew up in the area and frequently return.  Just north of the Hills is the center of the United States, near Belle Fouche.

A little further north is Meadow, South Dakota, which is home to McFarthest Spot, which is the farthest you can get away from a McDonald’s in the United States.

Visit Wall Drug.  Seriously, don’t miss it.  It’s just north of the entrance to the Badlands National Monument.

I boondocked outside the gate to the Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, which is free.  There are lots of tough characters in West River, so be prepared!

Philip Reid
2016 GMC 2500 Long Bed
2017 Four Wheel Camper Grandby

I visited Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments.  I recommend the Custer Park Loop Road and the Needles Highway.  Badlands National Park is also a must.  If you have time, take a trip out to Devils Tower.

I stayed at Wild Bills Campground in Deadwood and the Mt. Rushmore KOA.

Robert Mayton
2014 Ford F450
2015 Lance 1172

Mt. Rushmore was a disappointment for us, but don’t miss Crazy Horse!  There is a beautiful drive in the more remote southern section that the rangers can direct you to.  Four wheel drive is recommended.  Take a bike ride around the wildlife loop, but watch out for the bison.

Mark Olmstead
2017 Ram 3500
2000 S&S 8.5SC

The Mickelson Trail extends from Deadwood to Edgemont (108 miles) and is a Rails to Trails that has great scenery and history signs along the way.  It’s great for mountain biking (gravel) and hiking.  There are many trailheads and various companies offer shuttle services.

Custer Peak has a working fire lookout and exceptional views of the hills.  It has a decent gravel road until the last mile.  The maximum vehicle length is 20 feet, and the road is very rough.

We have a family property near Rochford that was my grandfathers deer hunting camp. For the past 32 years, I have been going back every summer for a week or two for our family vacations from our home in Washington State.

I retired this year and was able to spend two months in the Black Hills and look forward to another extended stay in 2018, probably August and September.  It’s a beautiful area with so much beauty and history to see and explore.

Thomas Emmert
2017 Ford F350
2014 Lance 1181

Visit the towns of Lead and Deadwood.  Go to Crazy Horse Monument.  Spearfish Canyon is a very nice drive in the fall.  Packtolo Lake is outside of Rapid City.  I also recommend going to Bear Country USA in Rapid City.

Gary Possert
1998 GMC K3500
2014 Lance 1050s

Needles Highway, Route 87, is a must drive scenic route, but not with a truck camper or trailer.  Set your camper off at a campground then take the Needles drive.  You physically can not fit through some of the tunnels/passages with your truck camper mounted.

If you are into steam engines and trains, take the Hill City/Keystone rail trip.  Pick it up in Hill City for the round trip excursion.

 

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