The Black Hills is one of the most special places in the country. If you've ever been, it's not hard to see why it was so sacred to some Native Americans. From the buttes and prairies of the Badlands to the strange rocks and dense forests of Custer, it's a landscape unlike any other. It's the perfect setting for an unforgettable outdoor adventure. Whether you're climbing a mountain, paddling around a lake hidden in the middle of a forest, hiking among ancient rock formations, or sleeping in a tipi, you’ll feel the enchantment of the Black Hills.
Long before Custer State Park was developed, travelers and nature lovers from far and wide were enjoying Sylvan Lake. It's said to be the most beautiful of all the lakes in the region, so adding it to the top of your list is a no-brainer. Experience a breathtaking environment where you can have some fun and get some great photos. A dip in Sylvan Lake with views of rugged landscape in front of you is something that you won't forget, and you can even stay in a lodge on-site if you decide you don't want to leave the beauty quite yet. Whether you want to fish, hike, boat, take a deep breath of fresh air, or even simply enjoy the drive around the area, Custer State Park won't disappoint.
The incredible views at Sylvan Lake can even be seen in National Treasure 2!
Black Elk Peak
At 7,242 feet, Black Elk Peak (previously Harney Peak) proudly stands as the highest point in South Dakota. Here you can see the entirety of the Black Hills and stand in awe of the endless wilderness branching out in front of you. If you're coming directly from Sylvan Lake, a seven-mile hike up the summit and back down to the water is a great trek for those wanting to do it all on foot. At the top, you’ll find a fire tower constructed in the 1930s out of stones from nearby French Creek. Explore the fire tower, take in a four-state view, and see for yourself why Black Elk Peak is a part of the Black Hills that everyone should experience at least once in their lives.
Just a few miles from Mount Rushmore and the many nearby attractions, you can enjoy primitive nature away from the hustle and bustle by relaxing at Horse Thief Lake. Stretch your legs and enjoy some killer scenery with a quick walk around the lake. A stay at the Horse Thief Campground will suit just about anyone's road-tripping fancy. Horse Thief is the place to be if you want to surround yourself with everything on your South Dakota list, since Custer State Park, the Black Hills, and Hill City are all within easy exploration distance. A couple of fishing docks and a hiking trail around the water provide for a peaceful yet stunning experience that makes Horse Thief a lesser-known gem that you'll want to experience for yourself.
Wind Cave National Park
Change things up a bit by heading underground at Wind Cave National Park, located near the city of Hot Springs and underneath miles of forests and prairies. Wind Cave was the first national park to encompass a cave. Stretching longer than 140 miles, the cave also happens to be one of the world’s longest. Spend time learning about the rich Native American history, the diversity of wildlife, and the interesting rock formations by taking one of the various tours offered by park rangers. More strenuous tours are offered for those wanting to crawl around the cave and explore the nooks and crannies. Even above ground, you'll have plenty of opportunities to roam the land, see bison and elk, and maybe even do some more hiking.
If you're looking for a place to rest for the night, hook up your RV, or just get away with some friends or family, Allen Ranch is truly a unique treasure in Hot Springs. Stay in a tipi, pitch a tent right by a warm-water river (that you can tube down, if you’d like), or "glamp" in some gorgeous and all-inclusive setups. Allen Ranch provides visitors with hiking, water, and cultural experiences you won't find just anywhere. Basically, this isn’t like any ordinary campsite. If you've worked up an appetite from the endless amount of adventure around the Black Hills, an old-fashioned cowboy supper will take care of you. And, hey, you might even leave feeling some mystical healing powers after spending some time in the historically famous waters that flow through the property.
Into hiking and seeing awesome views, but intimidated by strenuous trails and steep mountains? Buzzards Roost is a perfect place to head for some easy options that will still give you exactly what you're after. Although slightly rocky in some areas, the less-than-two-mile loop of trail gives beginners those killer views without much effort. The great thing about Buzzards Roost is that if you want to add more to your hike or see new things, additional trails are scattered about and simple to stick on to your trek. But either way, the lookout at the top of Buzzards Roost will definitely be a highlight. This dog-friendly location is great for anyone and everyone joining your voyage!
In the Badlands, hiking is available for every experience level. Easy paths such as the Window Trail take you right through a break in a Badlands wall in less than a half of a mile. From there, you can choose to trek into the wilderness on your own, or turn back to complete your easy trip while still seeing some insanely picturesque views. Castle Trailhead, on the other hand, offers a more difficult but still manageable experience for those wanting some serious hiking. The Castle Trail is ten miles roundtrip (the longest hike in the park) and allows you to see many of the multicolored rock formations for which the Badlands are famous. Plan to stay an entire afternoon, and bring your camera and plenty of water!
For a more difficult hike with a larger payoff, the Notch Trail in the Badlands will take you up a 50+ rung ladder to a ledge with an amazing view of White River Valley. Just because it's only a few miles roundtrip doesn't mean it's easy, so prepare for a bit of a challenge that is definitely worth it. For those with a fear of heights, an adventure through one of the many additional trails may be encouraged, but for those ready to kick their trip through South Dakota up a notch (pun intended!), this trail is the one for you.
While you're sure to discover plenty of attractions, museums, and famous locations spread throughout South Dakota, taking a few days to truly experience nature and life away from cities and crowds is important for a well-rounded trip through this beautiful state. Life is simple in the parks and on the trails. The views are endless. You can even take a dip in the state’s gorgeous lakes and rivers. You won't regret taking a deep breath and immersing yourself in the treasures you'll find along the way.
In just a few hours, you can journey from the mighty Missouri river to the legendary Black Hills. Then, drift through Deadwood, roll through the Badlands, or parade past Mount Rushmore. There are many paths to each great place. Start planning for South Dakota - the ultimate American road trip.
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