It’s hard to stick to the main road in South Dakota's rugged land of canyons, cliffs and caves.
Story and Photos by Johnny Sundby
Driving through the Black Hills and into the Badlands takes you through some of the most rugged, distinctive and beautiful land in America.
The Black Hills are home to the giant stone faces of Mount Rushmore National Monument and the Crazy Horse Memorial. This is the land of Deadwood and the final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and hundreds of American Indians killed at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. It’s also steeped in a rich gold-mining history.
Starting in the northwest, state Route 14A takes you through gorgeous Spearfish Canyon, a deep, narrow gorge carved by Spearfish Creek. The canyon has its own ecosystem of lush waterfalls, giant limestone cliffs, dozens of caves and, in the fall, a beautiful palette of colors. Drive deeper into Black Hills National Forest and you’ll recognize the dramatic scenery from such Westerns as Dances with Wolves, which was filmed here. You should take it slow here and savor every minute. Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse are within comfortable driving distance, as is Custer State Park.
Needles Highway, another amazing road, boasts more than 600 rock-climbing routes up granite spires that rises up out of the limestone. Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota at 7,242 feet above sea level, stands in the distance. A leisurely hike to the top takes about two hours one way and is well worth the time.
Continue east about 60 miles to the expansive Badlands, where you’ll find an inverted mountain system formed from erosion below the level of the surrounding plains, exposing layer after layer of sediment left over from an ancient sea bed. The Badlands are hot and dry, so it’s no wonder American Indians and whites alike passed up settling there. The best time to drive through the Badlands is during the first or last hour of sunlight, when the golden rays highlight the wild, magical landscape.
There are many magical places to see in this part of South Dakota. You’ll have to take my word for it, or, better yet, plan your own trip.