Is visiting South Dakota on your bucket list? I cannot say that it has ever been on mine. However, this summer when my husband and I were eagerly wanting to go somewhere together for the first time in three years (a very stressful three years globally, nationally, and personally I’ll add) and yet were significantly constrained by our current stage of life, South Dakota is exactly where we ended up. Guess what? I loved it! Upon returning to the Deep South, I’ve encountered very few who have traversed to that far off state that lies in two time zones, neither of which overlap our own Eastern Standard Time zone. Hence the need for this informative (and hopefully somewhat persuasive) post.
While my husband and I did not come close to exploring all that South Dakota offers, I’ll share our three-day itinerary to give you a basic starting point. Also, we drove up from Georgia and entered from the Minnesota side (a long story I’ll skip). Though driving is not a bad option albeit quite a long one, if you choose to fly instead, Rapid City Regional Airport would be first choice proximity wise.
Three remote Airbnbs with multiple guest rooms were our choice for lodging. Each offered a delicious, memorable breakfast, which inspired me to start making special breakfasts each morning once back home with my family of six. My kids do not understand what magic happened in South Dakota, but they are thankful for the transformation in my attitude towards the family morning meal time.
FIRST NIGHT – PIERRE, SD
Pierre is the capital of South Dakota. Though you like me probably learned to say it pee-air, it is actually locally pronounced peer. Being the capital city, you might assume it is a booming metropolis. Shockingly, the population is only around 14,000. We had the blessing of being in this location on the Fourth of July, and I would highly recommend you do the same. I have never seen so many fireworks, and I live in Atlanta! We attended the local rodeo in the evening, which technically was across the river in Fort Pierre which boasts a population of just over 2,000. The neighboring towns seem to have a healthy rivalry between them, which was amusing to observe. To avoid sticking out like a complete tourist at the rodeo, you’ll want to display plenty of patriotic spirit with red, white, and blue apparel. A cowboy hat is a common sight as well. Fireworks were going off the entire duration of the rodeo by neighbors all around. Once bull-riding ended, the official fireworks began.
On our first full day, we continued the patriotic theme by heading to Mount Rushmore. Our expectations were low, but we were definitely going to finally check off this famous monument we had heard about our entire lives. Consequently, the emotional impact this stop had on me was very unexpected. For those who have read any of my posts on racism, you have perhaps correctly assumed that I struggle with my feelings towards the United States. While many think this is the best country ever, for several years I have been weighed down by the incongruity between our stated values and our actual practices from our inception to the present. However, when I rounded the bend on the road upon approach and caught my first sight of the four famous presidents chiseled into the side of the ginormous granite in the distance, I was spellbound. Once we found our spot in the parking garage, we quickly observed that no license plate matched its neighbor’s with state after state being represented. This in-the-middle-of-nowhere location had drawn people from every region creating a feeling that we were treading on sacred ground. Minutes later when I walked up to the entrance and saw the two rows of state flags gloriously flying lining the entrance walk on either side with the four presidents grandly looking down upon the crowd of diverse visitors, the emotion really surfaced bringing unanticipated tears and a lump in my throat. All I could think was, “I’m so proud to be an American.” I know these four men are imperfect and mere mortals, but that is part of the beauty of the place. I too am imperfect. So are you. This monument emphatically testifies that our imperfections do not preclude us from having the ability to make a profound positive impact on mankind, and I find that incredibly encouraging.
Next we headed over to Custer State Park, specifically picturesque Sylvan Lake. Though hiking trails abound, this is definitely a popular, scenic spot worth burning some calories trekking. Needles Highway was an incredible drive. We turned around just past Needles Eye Tunnel (you might want to pull in the side mirrors and make sure your new teen driver isn’t the one behind the wheel while maneuvering this very tight squeeze). Wildlife Loop Road didn’t fit into our schedule, plus we had encountered bison back in Kentucky at the Land Between the Lakes, but it is a very popular location within Custer State Park. For dinner, we enjoyed a delicious meal in the grand dining room at Sylvan Lake Lodge before heading back to Mount Rushmore for their evening program, which was inspirational and ended with lights illuminating Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln against the night sky. Other sites in the area that interested us and that we had heard good things about but did not have time to explore included the Crazy Horse Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, and Jewel Cave National Monument.
SECOND NIGHT – RAPID CITY, SD
Rapid City is a good central place to stay for the duration of your South Dakota trip and offers all that your typical city offers. Plenty of hotels exist in the city itself, but our remote historic lodging was worth the extra miles to reach.
Our second full day took us into Wyoming. You didn’t see that coming did you?! Neither did we. We spontaneously added it to our trip after talking to some friends we ran into at Mount Rushmore the day before. (I cannot guarantee that you will unexpectedly run into friends you haven’t seen in ages in the middle of South Dakota but that sure was a massive blessing and highlight to our trip). Devil’s Tower was spectacular. Rock climbers from beginners to advanced will find this a memorable adventure. My husband and I are not that adventurous but enjoyed watching the brave souls through our binoculars. A delicious lunch was available close by at Devil’s Tower Gulch along with some cool souvenirs.
Once back in South Dakota, we headed for the Badlands where we would be spending our last night.
THIRD NIGHT – INTERIOR, SD
Have you, like our family, observed how even the smallest of towns has a Subway? Interior, SD boasts a population of a whopping 94 people, and while there, we discovered Subway does not actually find every city worthy of its presence as we previously thought. Thankfully the meager town had one open eating establishment at 8pm when we were needing supper. When traveling in the area, plan accordingly.
The next morning after our third and final amazing home cooked Airbnb breakfast, we hit the Badlands, which I had been anticipating ever since planning the trip. Our host, who is the third generation in his family to live in the area (his grandfather was a homesteader that immigrated from Germany), directed us to Notch Trail when we expressed interest in hiking. Wow! It was spectacular and I would highly recommend this strenuous but breathtaking trek. Personally, I was thankful I was not responsible for any children on the extremely dangerous portions of the hike, but plenty of families were courageously venturing to the final cliff without incident. Meanwhile, sitting in the shade near that final cliff while marveling at the unique scenery all around me, I wanted to pause time and stay right there and never go back to face the realities of life. This summer was an incredibly hard one. Isn’t that another reason we travel? To escape all the pressures of life? After my husband gently urged me to keep moving, I reluctantly rose and accepted the path and the trials that God has brought into my life during this season. But to this day I relish the peace of that temporary oasis.
Next up was the flat, easy, and quick Fossil Exhibit Trail, which had a fossil dig in action. Fascinating! After a short drive, Yellow Mounds Overlook captivated our attention. The information sign stated there is evidence of jungles in the area in the past. South Dakota, over a thousand miles from any ocean, was a jungle at one point and has numerous fossils? The more I travel the more evidence I see supporting Genesis 1-7. Pinnacles Overlook was our last and perhaps most impressive stop. Keep your eyes out and you too may spot a mountain goat balancing on a random ledge in the distance.
Upon leaving the incredible Badlands, we discovered that the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center was close by. We ended up only having a few minutes before it closed but were glad to have slightly increased our knowledge of the Cold War era.
One more place I should tell you about a few miles from the Badlands, or rather I should warn you about, is Wall Drug Store. This “store” has billboards as numerous as the ones for Rock City down South. Wall Drug is a massive overwhelming conglomeration of connecting stores in the middle of nowhere trapping tourists who naively enter. However, if you attempt this sensory overloading experience, try the homemade donuts! They were amazing! Truth be told, they were so delicious we stopped both days our paths crossed the tourist trap. Donuts are my weakness!
Traveling has a way of removing us from our normal, everyday routine and helping us pause and see the world and our own situations from a different perspective. South Dakota refreshed my soul during a very hard season. Strange how I never included such a diverse, captivating place on my bucket list. Thankfully, God knew what I needed and constrained my path so that I would be directed to a state I never would have naturally visited. South Dakota is definitely a must-see destination!