The majesty of South Dakota’s Badlands and the Black Hills National Forest draws thousands of travelers to the western part of the state each year. This region offers a wealth of attractions for groups to explore, from the scenic beauty of its state and national parks to the stoic faces of past U.S. presidents carved into Mount Rushmore. It’s also alive with history; travelers can experience influences of Native American and Western culture that intertwined to give the area its adventurous spirit.
“In addition to all these amazing parks we have, we have a wealth of attractions,” said Michelle Thomson, president and CEO of the Black Hills and Badlands Tourism Association. “There are so many things to experience in the Black Hills and Badlands area.”
While each nearby town boasts access to the major attractions of this region, these cities also offer unique sights and experiences for those passing through. Between the dense pine forests of Black Hills National Forest and the dramatic spires of the Badlands, here are four stops along the way that complete a signature South Dakota itinerary.
With vibrant nightlife and licensed gaming, the Wild West is still alive in Deadwood. Founded during the Gold Rush in 1876, this historic town boasts its rowdy past with plenty of museums detailing the many facets of life during this bygone era.
“The entire town is actually a national historic landmark,” said Thomson. “In addition to the gaming and Wild West, they also have a lot of events throughout the year.”
One of the city’s most prominent attractions is Mount Moriah Cemetery, a historic cemetery where Deadwood’s most famous dead are buried. This cemetery is the final resting place for notorious folk heroes such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
At Broken Boot Gold Mine, groups can tour a gold mine that shut down permanently in 1918. The mine, made its owners more profit from fool’s gold than yellow gold, but it’s been a faithful tourist attraction showcasing the area’s history for nearly 70 years. Another popular museum, the Brothel Deadwood, is set in a historic building that once served as a brothel and highlights some of the more scandalous history in the town and the entire West.
The Native American history of the region, particularly of the Lakota Tribe, is celebrated at Tatanka, a Native American Interpretive Center. Groups can hear the story of the bison from Native American interpreters, buy authentic Native American art and jewelry, and see 14 bronze sculptures of Lakota riders pursuing bison on the center’s grounds.
Deadwood features historic hotels and casinos up and down Main Street where groups can stay, play and dine. Downtown, at the Silverado Franklin Historic Hotel and Gaming Complex, groups can enjoy slots, table games and a poker room, then dine at the Legends Steakhouse for a hand-cut Angus steak or chops. Or, they can eat at the casino’s Vegas-style buffet, Silverado Grand Buffet, which features everything from wood-fired pizzas to prime rib.
With the Rapid City Regional Airport and easy access to railroads and interstates, Rapid City is a hub for the Black Hills and Badlands region. Though it only has a population of about 75,000, it features plenty of group-friendly attractions. One of the most notable is its proximity to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Groups can see the iconic American landmark for themselves or enjoy all the presidential tributes around Rapid City.
“The big thing that Rapid City is known for would be the City of Presidents, which are life-sized bronze sculptures of all the past presidents on downtown street corners,” said Thomson.
These bronze statues, the first of which were commissioned by the city in 1999 and 2000, are the real heights and weights of past U.S. presidents. They’ve become a symbol of the city and a beloved way to experience it. Groups often enjoy a City of Presidents walking tour, which will take them around the city for equal parts sightseeing and history lesson.
Another way to experience the city and make history come alive is with a tour of the Mt. Rushmore Black Hills Gold Factory. During this signature Rapid City experience, groups will learn about the process of making the signature Black Hills Gold jewelry and the factory’s significance to the city’s history.
Rapid City is also a hub for culture, featuring an abundance of museums, shops and arts centers. These group-friendly attractions include the Journey Museum and Learning Center, the South Dakota Air and Space Museum, Tusweca Gallery and the Dahl Art Center.
The city also has another surprise that will delight groups: Chapel in the Hills is a replica of Norway’s Borgund Stavkirke. This beautiful and ornate example of Scandinavian architecture also features a museum and gift shop for guests to peruse while they admire its craftsmanship.
For a signature South Dakota dining experience, groups can head to Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper and Show, a music show and restaurant that serves up both Western entertainment and hearty, down-to-earth meals.
Custer is the oldest town in the Black Hills National Forest region. Once a popular destination for mining, the land eventually became a state park and city. It is centrally located between state and national parks and prominent South Dakota monuments and memorial sites.
“Custer is in the middle of all of these parks,” said Thomson. “Their easy access to the parks is mostly what Custer is known for.”
With all the nearby natural scenery, it should come as no surprise that outdoor recreation is popular in Custer. In addition to hiking, biking, horseback riding and kayaking, travelers can explore the earth and sky around Custer in more unusual ways, such as UTVs, hot air balloons and helicopters.
The city is just outside the entrance to Custer State Park, a 71,000-acre wildlife preserve where bison, elk, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and many other species roam. Groups can take take the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour, a wildlife safari adventure from an open-air Jeep.
Due west at Jewel Cave, a national monument and the world’s third longest cave, groups can take a guided cave tour to witness the stunning natural formations within.
Crazy Horse Memorial calls Custer its home. This iconic monument is a tribute to the Lakota leader named Crazy Horse and honors Native American heritage in the Black Hills. Groups can learn about, its significance and the logistics behind its ongoing construction by taking a ride up the mountain or perusing the campus welcome center.
To refuel after a day of sightseeing and outdoor adventures, groups can stop at the Mount Rushmore Brewing Company, a brewpub with both a taproom taproom, groups will find seasonal, local craft beer and bar staples like pizza, burgers and sandwiches. Upstairs at the Pounding Fathers restaurant, groups can choose from a selection of sophisticated dishes, like scallops, Cornish game hen and pork ossobuco.
With fewer than 2,000 residents, a tiny town on the western edge of the Badlands may seem an unusual stop for travelers. But for groups traveling through South Dakota, Wall offers several distinct attractions that make it a must-see stop on any itinerary.
Wall has a long history of being a stopover in South Dakota because of the Wall Drugstore, also known as Wall Drug, which became the preferred place for travelers to rest and eat after visiting Badlands National Park, which is one of the state’s most awe-inspiring natural attractions.
“Wall Drug Store opened in 1931 and started offering free ice water to travelers who were traveling across the state of South Dakota on the way to the Black Hills,” said Thomson.
Today, Wall Drug attracts over 2 million visitors a year. With plentiful options for shopping and dining, and of course, free ice water, it’s the perfect place to grab a South Dakota souvenir and refreshments. Wall Drug’s Western Art Gallery Restaurant can accommodate 500 customers, and serves up hot beef sandwiches, buffalo burgers and 5-cent coffee. The restaurant is also known for homemade doughnuts, and true to its name, the collection of Western-themed art adorning its walls.
Besides Wall Drug, Wall is close to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, a relic from the Cold War. Here, groups can visit a nuclear missile silo and learn about the significance of the U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons that still reside in the Great Plains.
To see the plains untouched, as they would have been 150 years ago, Buffalo Gap National Grasslands is another nearby stop. These grasslands offer groups sweeping views of the unspoiled South Dakota prairies, with opportunities for wildlife viewing, hiking and horseback riding.
For a look at how the pioneers who settled the Great Plains during the early 20th century lived, groups can stop at the Prairie Homestead, Brown’s original sod home, which was built in 1909.