Rapid City may not be your first thought for a vacation destination but with the Black Hills to the west, and the Badlands to the east, this small city on the edge of the Great Plains is an excellent destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
Known as the City of Presidents, Rapid City is South Dakota’s second largest city and gateway to the famed Mount Rushmore. Downtown offers several food and lodging accommodations along with a vast array of shops and stores. Directly downtown there are two hotels to choose from, The Alex Johnson Hotel and the Adoba Eco Hotel. The Alex Johnson Hotel is an historic hotel that offers visitors a chance to step back in time to the early 1900’s, while the Adoba Eco Hotel offers a more modern approach to life and prides itself on its eco-friendly construction and services. If you are looking for a more cost effective stay check out the many other accommodations located along I-90 such as the Best Western Ramkota.
The Black Hills:
Heading west out of Rapid City are the Black Hills: the home of Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park and hundreds of miles of trails, rock climbing and caverns. Mount Rushmore is a must see for any visitor as the history of its construction and the views are well worth the stop. After Mount Rushmore continue driving towards the town of Custer and check out the Crazy Horse Memorial which is being constructed to honor the great Oglala Lakota Leader. Crazy Horse took up arms against the Federal Government due to the encroachment of settlers on his people’s land and way of life. He was killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn. When complete, the Crazy Horse Memorial will become the world’s largest sculpture and ride into the future reminding generations to come of this hero of the the Lakota people.
Once you have checked off the two major tourist attractions it is now time to check out the natural wonders of the Black Hills. Jewel Cave and Wind Cave are two caves in the region that are protected by the National Park Service and provide daily tours. Jewel Cave is located near the Wyoming border and offers wonderful calcite crystal formations, some of which are a few feet thick on the cave walls. It is believed that Jewel Cave is the second longest cave system in the world with 160 miles of cave surveyed and an estimated 90% of the cave still to be discovered. The Park Service offers a variety of tours ranging in difficulty, all of which leave from the visitor’s center.
Just south of Custer State Park is Wind Cave National Park, the nation’s seventh oldest National Park and the first cave to be given National Park status in the world. Wind Cave is currently the fifth longest cave in the world with 137.02 miles of explored passages. 95% of the world’s box work formation occurs within Wind Cave, while frosting and flow rock are also present. Above the cave are miles of trails that cross the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the United States.
Located just east of the city of Custer is Custer State Park. Custer State Park is a great place for camping, hiking, horseback riding and many other outdoor activities. Wildlife Loop is the major roadway that goes around the perimeter of the park and it offers a chance to see the park’s abundant wildlife. Starting from the picturesque Sylvan Lake take the Needles Highway and drive through granite spires that offer excellent rock climbing and panoramic views. As you make your way around the Wildlife Loop you will pass 4 Lodges and campgrounds within the park that would make great base camps for day trips within the park. Across the street from Blue Bell Lodge are the Blue Bell Stables, a smaller horseback riding outfit offering rides that range from 1 hour to all day.
Continuing around the loop the Ponderosa Pine forests give way to open grassland providing an opportunity to see buffalo and other grassland animals. Wild burros frequent the highway looking to lick your car for salt and get a good scratch behind the ear (Warning: you should never approach wild animals).
Wildlife Loop Road offers some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities and is home to many species including pronghorn, big horn sheep, mountain goats and mountain lions just to name a few.
If you are looking for a day hike or a short overnight backpacking trip, Harney Peak is not a bad choice. South Dakota’s highest point, Harney Peak is a slab of granite that reaches up into sky as the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. At 7,242 feet (2,207 m ) this summit offers breathtaking views from an old Civil Conservation Corps’ fire tower that was built at the summit in the early 1900’s.
The easiest approach is from the south section of the Harney Peak Trail from the Sylvan Lake shore Loop Trail, but do not be surprised if you find others joining you on this popular trail. Little Devils Tower Trail is a great alternative and makes an excellent loop if you are starting at the Sylvan Lake Day Use area.This trail offers breath taking views of Cathedral Spires as it works its way to the base of these giant granite peaks. Overnight hikers should be aware that there is no camping within Custer State Park or ¼ of a mile from the Harney Peak Summit. Harney peak is within the Black Elk Wilderness and is governed by the National Forest Service so stop by a local Forest Service office to check the rules and regulations.
Hot Springs is a small town located on the Fall River about 10 miles south of Wind Cave. It is the southern gateway to the Black Hills, and also home to the Mammoth Site. The Mammoth Site is the location of a prehistoric hot spring that was the final resting place for prehistoric flora and fauna that called South Dakota home. The actual active dig site is located indoors and gets you close to the fossils.
Badlands and Surrounding Area:
About 75 miles east of Rapid City is the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The Minuteman Missile Project was started under President Truman during the Cold War arms race with the Soviet Union. In the 1950’s South Dakota was home some of the nearly 500 minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) equipped with 1.2 megaton nuclear war heads. Now deactivated the Minuteman II project has been preserved by the National Park Service. Located at exit 131 on I-90 the visitor center offers a short film, but the real attraction is the Delta-01 Launch Control facility.
The Delta-01 Launch Control is located just North of I-90 on exit 127 and is only accessible on ranger led tours and require that you pick up a ticket from the visitor center at Exit 131. The Delta-01 tour takes you back into the Cold War when the site was home to a four man security team, a facility manager and two missileers. 9.4 m (31 ft) below the surface is the launch control capsule encased in a thick cement-walled dome where two missileers, individuals who were launch control specialists, stood on guard 24-7 from the 1950’s until the site was decommissioned in 1992. Visitors are actually allowed to step foot in the capsule and see where WWIII could have begun, with a lot of decoding and the turn of two keys.
Farther west on I-90 is the D-09 Missile silo that was controlled by the D-01 Launch Control. It is also open to the public. Here you can take a cell phone tour and look down into the silo to see an actual decommissioned Minuteman II missile.
Badlands National Park is most often visited by motorists who just drive through the north unit, but like any other wilderness area, the true beauty is seen best on foot. There are a handful of trails, from easy boardwalk trails exhibiting fossils from the rich Badlands fossil beds, to the more strenuous Saddle Pass that climbs steeply to the Castle Trail (longest developed trail in the park).
While the trail system within park is small, it is possible to go cross country and explore your own route. Be sure to carry enough water as the park does not have access to potable water and the temperatures can sore will over 100 degrees on summer days (on this trip it was 111 degrees in early September). Any water found in the park is so concentrated in silt and minerals to that it is deemed unsafe to drink even after filtration. For overnight adventures be sure to stop by the Ben Reifel Visitor center to check in and get a list of regulations on camping and water requirements.
The south unit of Badlands National Park is bordered by the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and is a remote wilderness. Taking Highway 2, a dirt road that stretches just over 40 miles to Hot Springs, helps remind you how small you are in this vast world. For the more adventurous this would prove to be the perfect playground, but I was not up for such an adventure this time around.
Rapid City, South Dakota is your destination if your looking for a great backpacking trip or an outdoor based family vacation. This city and its surrounding parks are a great place to get out and explore wild America. I know we had a great trip and hope to visit again some day soon.