23 Film Photos From 72 Hours of Adventure in South Dakota
A long weekend travel guide to some of America’s most striking (and accessible) landscapes in the Black Hills, Badlands National Park, and beyond
Truth be told, I’d never really thought about South Dakota. Then I went. And now I can’t stop thinking about it.
Over three days we hiked alpine trails lined by granite peaks and ponderosa pine, soaked in natural hot springs, climbed towers of colorful Mars-like sandstone, marveled at one of the longest cave systems in the world, and simply stood still in awe of landscapes so unique you have to see to believe. South Dakota should be in the mix when discussing America’s best outdoor recreation destinations.
Wedged between Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Minnesota, the hulking rectangular state of South Dakota sits in the dead center of America and identifies both as an extension of the Mountain West and firmly Midwestern, depending on who you ask and where you are. From my perspective, the distinction is irrelevant—the unique terrain within Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, and Black Hills gives way to entire worlds unto their own.
What follows is a true to form breakdown of our own 72-hour visit to South Dakota, shared with 25 film photos made between “Wow!”s and “What?!”s—consider it an illustration of what can be seen, done, and thoroughly enjoyed in just a long weekend. Read on, enjoy. Then forward this link to your favorite travel buddy and start planning your own adventure to America's most central destination for unexpected vistas and open roads.
Day 1: Badlands National Park
Almost immediately after leaving Rapid City—aka where to stay when visiting South Dakota national parks and home to the perfectly retro Dinosaur Park, built by the Works Progress Administration overlooking town in 1936—we began seeing signs for two of South Dakota’s biggest attractions, Badlands National Park and Wall Drug. Never one to pass up a roadside attraction (see aforementioned Dino Park) we stopped by the 76,000-square-foot tourist trap, gift shop, museum, restaurant, and yes, pharmacy, for a bunch of goofy photos and a surprisingly tasty classic diner breakfast (with homemade donuts). Then it was on to Badlands National Park.
Located at the western edge of the Great Plains on ancestral land of many Indigenous nations (most prominently the Lakota), Badlands National Park sits on 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires surrounded by grass prairie. And good lord is it beautiful. We have 75 million years of geologic history (and a massive ocean during Pangea times) to thank for the distinct landscape—and one of the world’s richest fossil beds as proof.
How to maximize your time & views in Badlands National Park
Enter the park via the NE Entrance Station off Highway 240 and continue on the 39-mile Badlands Loop Scenic Byway. After a short walk and big gawk at the Big Badlands Overlook, jump back in your rig and drive three or four minutes down the road to the large parking area that serves as trailhead for the Door Trail, Window Trail, Castle Trail, and Notch Trail. Do all four.
The first three are each easy, accessible and around a half mile or less, round trip, with off the charts view-to-effort ratios. The last, Notch Trail, leads you to an ever-Instagramable log ladder and some pretty awesome views throughout the hike. Besides the ladder, which is a bit of bottleneck, this trail is a literal walk in the park and worth exploring.
After burning a couple rolls of 120 film on the aforementioned trails, we followed the flow of fellow visitors west on the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway past the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, stopping for more Martian views at Panorama Point and Homestead Overlook. Pinnacles Overlook is worth another very short walk to stretch your legs. This junction is where most continue on SD 240 north back to Interstate-90. But for you, the ever-informed and adventurous traveler, this is where you hang a left onto the NPS Sage Creek Rim Road, a gravel road that winds through Sage Creek Wilderness to eventually dump out onto Highway 44 near the town of Scenic, SD. Here you’ll find the park’s South Unit, which is entirely on Native American Tribal Trust land of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Consider this the scenic route—it is in every way.
If our great national parks teach us nothing else, it’s the importance of slowing down and observing the natural world around us from time to time
The Sage Creek Rim Road is where we spotted a herd of free roaming bison, giggled at innumerable prairie dogs acting exactly like you imagine they might, and enjoyed a changing landscape as the eroded terrain of the Badlands gives way to green prairie and farmland. In a perfect world, we would’ve camped at Sage Creek Campground. This route may be a bit slower going (roughly two hours) than hightailing it back to I-90, but if our great national parks teach us nothing else, it’s the importance of slowing down and observing the natural world around us from time to time (and hopefully feeling inspired to protect it for future generations.)
Side Note: Just about an hour southwest of Badlands sits another, much more unassuming, national park service site worth visiting, Wind Cave National Park, home to one of the country’s longest and most complex cave systems. While we didn’t have time to dive into this natural landmark, we’ve heard similar stories—you’ve gotta see it to believe it. (If cave tours are your thing, check out Jewel Cave National Monument, home to the third longest cave in the world, while you’re at it.)
Day 2: Black Hills National Forest & Custer State Park
After a day in the Badlands we made our way to an extremely cute Airbnb A-frame near the classic western town of Custer on the edge of Custer State Park. Consisting of 1.2 million acres of conifer forest covered hills and mountains spanning 110 miles from western South Dakota into Northeastern Wyoming, the Black Hills National Forest is where we spent the remaining two days of our trip. And we barely scratched the surface.
Named for the Lakota words Paha Sapa, which translates to "hills that are black,” the dense ponderosa pine forests appear black from afar and feature innumerable finger-like granite spires rising several thousand feet above the surrounding prairie. Think of it like a prehistoric, alpine version of Joshua Tree.
Yes, the Black Hills are home to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Both are worth a drive by, regardless of your politics. But it’s the area’s world class outdoor recreation that should take priority, imo. The climbing here is legendary—though sadly we didn’t get a chance to do any pebble wrestling in Spearfish on our visit—biking is worth a note, and the hiking is top notch.
Encompassing 71,000 acres in the Black Hills is Custer State Park, a jump off point for some of the region’s most celebrated trails and the state’s highest point, Black Elk Peak. We’ll get to that below. But first, a quick nod to Sylvan Lake, a must-visit day use area with a beautiful, easy loop trail, public boat launch, and recreation areas. For those looking to break a sweat, take the Sylvan Lake Loop Trail to the Sunday Gulch Trail for worthy valley views.
Day 3: Hiking to Black Elk Peak
On our final full day we woke with the sun, slugged some gnarly instant coffee, jumped in the rental Rav4 (shout out Ken from Turro) and headed back into the Black Hills. And in all my years lacing up hiking boots, I’ve never seen such a scenic drive to the trailhead. Even if you don’t hike, driving the winding roads of Custer State Park and the Black Hills in general is a treat. Navigating through crazy narrow tunnels and alongside sheer drops on the way to Cathedral Spires Trailhead is the cherry on top.
Rising 7,244’ above the Great Plains sits highest mountain east of the Rockies, Black Elk Peak (or Hiŋháŋ Káǧa, meaning owl-maker in Lakota). Renamed in 2016 for a celebrated Oglala Sioux holy man to pay homage to a people and land unjustly stolen by the US Government, the peak rests on land sacred to the Lakota (and Cheyenne before them). Now protected within the Black Elk Wilderness, the eponymous peak should be high on the must-visit list for all nature lovers.
Black Elk Peak can be accessed by no less than a dozen different hiking trails. While Trail No. 9, which begins by Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park is the most popular, we opted for a more ambitious combination route starting at the Cathedral Spires Trailhead.
On this brisk morning we made our way to the famed Cathedral Spires, then did a dog leg backtracking to Little Devils Tower, before heading on to Black Elk Peak. Throughout the roughly 9-mile out-and-back hike we wound through dense pine forests and passed two billion-year-old rock formations glittering with minerals. And at the top, a historic site awaits in the stone fire lookout tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938, welcoming hikers with a 360-degree view of neighboring states Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Nebraska as reward. The level of stunning landscapes within this moderate hike is hard to top, especially east of the Rockies.
Pro tip: Soothe sore muscles with a post-hike soak in a natural hot spring at Moccasin Springs Spa just an hour south of Custer.
While we jam-packed our trip with hikes and detours—as crazy as it sounds—just driving around this region of South Dakota affords remarkable access to some of the country’s most unique landscapes. It’s the very reason so many millions of people flock here each year to visit the many national and state parks, historic sites, memorials, monuments, and yes, Sturgis. There’s no better way to see South Dakota than by a good old fashioned road trip.