I have to preface this by saying that this was not my first time to South Dakota. The first time I went to this state was on a family road trip when I was about 4. The only things I know about this trip are from the family pictures, in which I rocked red plastic glasses (I don’t even wear glasses) and dragged around a blanket with cat pictures all over it. I also know what my mom told me: that it was the worst family vacation we had ever taken. Apparently when we pulled into the driveway at the end of the trip, my brother (who was only about 6) leaned forward and said, “If I had known how awful this trip was going to be, I would’ve stayed home.”
I was pretty confident that this trip to South Dakota would be better.
A day before leaving, a friend of ours told my husband and I that the Sturgis Bike Rally was conveniently happening at the same time. I didn’t really know what that meant and I also wasn’t about to change our plans last minute.
SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA
Our first day was spent driving to Sioux Falls where we set up camp in one of the sketchiest looking campsites ever. The first night was a small chance of rain turned booming thunderstorm with torrential rains. Was it an omen? How our tent did not just pick up and blow away is beyond me because it certainly got whipped back and forth…with us in it of course. We woke up to a puddle of water inside the tent and some guy yelling obscenities and apologizing to us ‘tent people’ for waking us up. We didn’t stick around to see Sioux Falls.
BLACK HILLS NATIONAL FOREST
On Day 2 we drove to the Black Hills National Forest and there was indeed a Biker Rally. It was a little ironic that we decided to escape to nature for some R&R because we got engines revving instead of birds chirping. While there were only a handful of cars each place we went, there were thousands of bikers. Literally thousands.
The Black Hills cover quite a large area and there are several things to explore here. Since there is no entrance fee to the forest, a lot of other places DO have one, such as the campgrounds, attractions, lakes, beaches, etc. We thought it might be nice to camp on our own, but quickly found that it was a little difficult to find a spot since there are lots of highways going through the hills and not many places to pull off and park. We ended up on a dirt road that led us into a cow pasture. And after driving around for ages, we ended up camping not far from the cows (who knows if this was an acceptable place to camp).
CUSTER STATE PARK
There is a $20 entrance fee for Custer State Park, but it’s good for 7 days and required to access some of the trails and the following:
The next day, I was determined to find a better spot so we decided to head to an organized campground. A ranger suggested Center Lake lots 40-45 because these apparently had a nice view of the lake. Turns out only one of those lots had a decent view of the lake and it was not ours. But no worries, it was a nice spot to camp in the forest with a lot of open space and no cows.
NEEDLES SCENIC HIGHWAY
One of my favorite parts of Custer State Park was The Needles, which are jagged rock formations. There is a section of highway that drives right through these landforms and has some great views. There is also a one-lane tunnel to drive through at one part, but keep your eyes out for goats that like to lick the salt off the inside walls of the tunnel!
Next we went to Sylvan Lake, a very scenic lake with huge rock formations and swimming. It’s a nice place to go for a walk around the lake or just to relax. The thousands of bikers thought so too. Sylvan Lake also happens to be the starting place for one of the most popular hiking trails: Black Elk Peak.
BLACK ELK PEAK
Also known as Harney Peak, this is one of the most popular hikes and takes several hours to complete. It’s just under 4 miles and considered a moderate hike. We started at 3:30 and made it to the top at 5:30pm. I am moderately out of shape but have long legs and a husband who likes to make good time, so this may or may not be above average timing.
The views are well worth it and there is a cool tower at the very top that gives you a 360 view of the forest. We started down at 6:00pm and made it to the bottom at 7:20pm. My entire body was sore and I practically dragged myself to the car, but it was a nice hike and it was completely empty. (It seemed the bikers aren’t hikers, so the trails were quiet.)
One of the most famous places in the Black Hills is Mount Rushmore, where you can see 4 of the presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Lincoln) carved into the side of a mountain. I can’t say there is much else to do there besides look at the side of the mountain, but it is cool to see. However, there were these miniscule sand fly things that bite and were everywhere.
CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL
So far, I’d say our experience this time around had been so-so, but then there was Crazy Horse. As we were pulling in, we could see the rock carving right in front of us. Like, we were literally staring at it while someone asked us to pay $24 so we could stare at is from the building right next to us. There wasn’t a place to turn around and with a line of cars behind us, we felt peer pressured to pay it and I wish we hadn’t. So we paid $24 to look at it from 100 ft. closer. Also, this monument has been a work in progress for 70 years. SEVENTY YEARS and there is only a face completed. (Mount Rushmore was $10 for the car AND finished (haha)).
There was also an Indian dance that you could watch but it actually ended up being a 35-minute education lesson on Indian culture in 100° weather. It was sweltering. There was no shade, no breeze and by the time they got to the dancing, I was so hot and bothered that I was just ready to leave.
**We also ended up driving a LOT. If you don’t map out your itinerary, you can easily end up driving back and forth when it’s not necessary.
BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
We were a bit glad to leave the forest and head to the Badlands. The Badlands was blazing. It was so hot that we didn’t know how we were going to do any hiking, since it is a place with relatively little shade. After melting through a few view points and sitting in the car with the AC on high for awhile, we decided to find a place to do some back country camping. The Badlands is a place that you can camp anywhere as long as it is a certain distance from trails and roads. I had seen some spots online that I thought would be really cool for camping.
I have to say, camping in the Badlands looks like a much better idea in the pictures. We didn’t quite have the right gear and camping on rocks is less than comfortable. After one of the worst nights ever, we packed up as soon as the sun rose and called it a trip.
BONUS: DEVIL’S TOWER
Devil’s Tower isn’t technically in South Dakota, but if you’re in the area and have the time, a quick hop across the border to Wyoming might be in order. From Rapid City, Devil’s Tower is a 1 hour 40 minute drive.
By the time we left, I was cranky, hot and had zero sleep before a 10-hour drive home. My soreness from the hike was now a bruised soreness after trying to sleep on top of rocks. And by the time we got home, I think my sentiments were probably similar to those we had had on our family road trip 25 years ago. Not the best trip, but that doesn’t mean South Dakota is not worth the visit. There are some beautiful places to see!