Adventure Destination: South Dakota

Mt. Rushmore
••• Mt. Rushmore is South Dakota's most famous site. Kraig Becker

In terms of adventure travel destinations, South Dakota is most definitely an overlooked gem. Sandwiched between America's upper-midwest and the enormously popular mountain states, it offers a fantastic blend of both of those cultures. The state is filled with friendly, welcoming people who are happy to share their bountiful natural resources with visitors. And while those natural resources may not be as well known as the Rocky Mountains, they are impressive and awe inspiring in their own right.

 

Much of the eastern part of South Dakota resembles the flat prairie lands that are common across the midwest. This is a part of the state that is more pastoral in nature, and while beautiful in its own way, it doesn't necessarily inspire travelers to make the journey to visit. But head to the western end of South Dakota and you'll discover an entirely different landscape. One where the rolling hills can be breathtakingly beautiful and the opportunities for outdoor adventure abound. There are even places there that more closely resemble the surface of another planet, rather than something you might find here on Earth. 

Rapid City serves as the hub from which most travelers will gain access to the South Dakota landscapes. This vibrant and modern city offers plenty of great places to stay and eat, and features some great venues for a variety of different types of entertainment as well. Among them is the Firehouse Brewery, which offers delicious meals with some excellent beers brewed onsite.

A block away, the Independent Ale House keeps 40 different beers on tap at all times, with new brews being added on a regular basis. 

As good as the food and drinks are in Rapid City however, you'll definitely want to head out to the surrounding area to see what it has to offer. Chances are, if you're an adventure traveler or outdoor enthusiasts, you won't be disappointed.

With over 400 miles of single track mountain bike trails within a half-hour of the city, there is always a great place to ride nearby. Throw in access to an unprecedented number of public lands, and visitors will find a staggering number of trails to hike or run, not to mention some wonderful places to go camping. 

Of course, the Black Hills are one of the biggest reasons to come visit. This small chain of mountains extends from the plains all the way into Wyoming, covering an area that is about 125 miles in length, and 65 miles wide. Covered in thick forests, the Hills feature countless rock formations, crystal clear lakes, wide-open grasslands, and steep canyons. This makes it a great destination for climbers, hikers, and backpackers alike. 

The most famous destination in the Black Hills is without a doubt Mt. Rushmore. More than two million people a year visit the site to witness the massive sculpture on the side of a mountain that features four famous U.S. presidents. Those faces belong to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Seeing those famous men cast in stone is an awe inspiring site, with construction that is on par with some of the great wonders of the world.

Barring any unforeseen catastrophe, those faces will remain there, etched in the rock, for thousands of years to come, putting Mt. Rushmore on a similar level as the Great Sphinx in Egypt or grand structures built across the ancient world. 

While much of western South Dakota is covered in public lands and national forests, it is also home to one of the most unique national parks you will ever visit. Badlands National Park covers some 244,000 acres, and features a landscape that looks like something you'd be more likely to find on the moon or Mars. Rugged and demanding, the Badlands are a place of stark beauty that simply has to be seen to be believed. The jagged cliffs put the geologic timeline on full display, with colorful stratification lines marking the passage of time in dramatic fashion.

 

Hiking in the Badlands is a tremendously rewarding experience, bringing a true sense of wonder to travelers. Far from being the desolate, lifeless place that its name implies, Badlands National Park is filled with wild flowers, green grasses, and outstanding wildlife, including lots of hardy rabbits and astoundingly spry mountain goats which can routinely be spotted high on the rocky outcroppings. But beware, the park's warm, dry climate also makes it the perfect home for rattlesnakes, so watch your step when trekking there. 

One of South Dakota's best kept secrets is Custer State Park, a sprawling landscape that is easily on par with many national parks in terms of natural beauty. The park is home to more than 1300 wild bison, as well as elk, deer, and mountain goats. It also has one of the most picturesque outdoor settings that you'll find anywhere in the form of Sylvan Lake, not to mention hundreds of square miles of forests to explore. 

Hikers looking for a good challenge will want to hike to the top of Harney Peak, the state's highpoint at 7242 feet (2207 meters). The trail to the summit takes about two hours to complete, with some challenging elevation gains to overcome along the way. At the top, visitors will find an old lookout tower that was once used to spot fires in the region. It has long since been abandoned for those purposes, but it makes a great place to take in the surrounding scenery, and have a picnic lunch. 

Each of these settings makes the perfect place for not just hiking and camping however, as much of the public lands are also open for trail running, mountain biking, horseback riding, and driving off-road in 4x4's and ATV's. This isn't permitted in national parks of course, but most other public lands offer plenty of access for those who like to get out into the wilderness, but don't necessarily want to trek those trails in order to do so. The options are nearly boundless, and with so many public lands available, visitors are never far from a wilderness paradise, which they are likely to have almost entirely to themselves. 

Of course, no visit to South Dakota would be complete without dropping by the famous Wall Drug Store in the sleepy little town of Wall – population 818. This family run business is known for its enticing road-side signs which can be found for hundreds of miles in all directions. Mixed with a bit of cowboy kitsch, Wall Drug offers all kinds of fun for families, including stores filled with tourist items, a six-foot tall jackalope, a very hungry T-rex that likes to feed every 15 minutes, and a cafeteria that serves up a mean buffalo burger. Some will no doubt find the place to be overly gimmicky, but if you embrace Wall Drug's culture, it is hard to ignore its charms. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg for what South Dakota has to offer. Visitors will find plenty of other options to help keep them entertained as well. From good food to outdoor adventure, there is something for everyone there.