Have You Ever Been To South Dakota?
If you have and were coming from the East you definitely noticed the never-ending slew of billboards. All of which are advertising the “must see” places along the way to the Black Hills. The most prominent would be Wall Drug, Murdo Pioneer Auto Museum, The Corn Palace, and the 1880’s Ghost Town.
Do I feel these places are worth a stop? Sure. Are they worthy of all the hype? Possibly not. But, to each their own, maybe they are exactly what you are looking for in a travel destination. Or, if you are like me, you want to see the sites and venture off the beaten path. Discover the undiscovered.
Once you finally reach the Black Hills there is an entire world of wonder awaiting you with the opportunity to do just that. Any motorcycle rider or outdoor enthusiast will flourish in the hills. You might say a full-on sensory overload will occur.
So when I say, “Top 10 Black Hills Adventures” the keyword is adventures. These are places to go explore Mother Nature and roads to ride. There are several more lists to be written on attractions to visit in South Dakota, it is a unique and exciting place. Most definitely a “fun for the whole family” type area with countless activities to offer.
Let’s roll on to a few of my highly recommended sites to see that I have explored numerous times over the last 21 years.
17 miles, 314 curves, need I say more? As one of the most scenic and well known roads in the U.S. it is no surprise that this magnificent stretch of pavement lies in the Black Hills. One of Iron Mountain Road’s distinct features is the set of “Pig-Tail” bridges climbing in a spiral as the road escalates to its summit.
Though the name may sum it up let’s just go over the definition of “Pig-tail” bridge. Picture a curly cue, a spring, hell how about a slinky? Now, imagine that shape in the form of a blacktop road lined with giant logs as braces and supports. Then think of yourself rolling up this masterpiece and looking down at the previous wooden framed phenomenon surrounded by beautiful forest and rock formations.
But Wait, It Gets Better
Another one-of-a-kind design of the road are the “monumental” tunnels. There are 3 tunnels amongst the curves of Iron Mountain and you can catch a miraculous framed view of the Mount Rushmore monument as you pass through.
Now, we’ve all heard of lane splitting, but, this road moves it to a whole new level. As you’re tooling along enjoying the lush green forest around you, suddenly you are traveling on a one-way single track paved trail. It feels as if you have just left civilization for a walk on the wild side in the woods.
Iron Mountain Road is also highway 16A and home to several trail-heads into the national forest along with many viewing areas and picnic places. The road has much to offer and can easily turn into a day trip all of its own.
Since this road is meant for the casual “Sunday drive” don’t plan on getting anywhere in a hurry, the posted speed limit averages around 35 M.P.H. Just take your time and soak up all that the scenery and the road have to show you.
Not to mention, keep your eyes peeled for some of the infamous wildlife known to roam this area. It is not unusual to spot buffalo standing in the road or any of the other native creatures that call the Black Hills home.
Lastly but not leastly, make sure you pack a lunch and some water for this road trip. There is not much along the way aside from the Spokane Creek Cabins and general store. This makes a wonderful lunch stop but who knows what kind of adventures you’ll encounter to work up an appetite or thirst before getting there.
Continuing on with the winding roads, we end up at the famous 14 miles of Needles Highway. A few short miles from the end of Iron Mountain Road is the beginning of this exceptionally carved path through the marvelous stone pillars of the Black Hills.
Of course, the exact location depends on which end you start from, Needles could very well be on your way to Iron Mountain Road. If you take a peek at a map of the hills you’ll notice how these roads go in a bit of a circle somewhat circumferencing Custer park and passing through it in certain places. That being said, a park pass is required to travel this road.
Needles, like Iron Mountain also has tunnels to pass through. One such tunnel is referred to as the Needles Eye and is named so due to the small opening in the stone pillars resembling the eye of a sewing needle. This is a wonderful place to stop and explore. There are trails leading out and around several of the rock formations and one leading directly to the top of the tunnel. Get a birds-eye view of the vehicles passing through as you sit in awe at the astounding scenic setting of this natural wonder.
This particular road is narrow and full of twists and turns that leave you no choice but to obey the speed limit of 25-35 M.P.H. There are multiple pullouts along the route and spectacular perspectives of the rock formations throughout the hills around you. If you happen to look up as you round some of the curves you will be amazed at how high up you are above the world.
Do you hear the call of the wild? It’s getting insanely close. How close? Well, let’s just say that these animals are not shy. Obviously being in the wild there is no guarantee where they will be at any point in time. But, many species happen to frequent this route. Odds are, you will find yourself in the middle of an entire heard of buffalo as they cross the road, or stop in the middle of it.
Custer Wildlife Loop runs through Custer park and is where Iron Mountain Rd, Hwy 16A, and Needles Highway, Hwy 87 come together in the circle around the park and the Black Hills. Here again, you will need a park pass to enter and enjoy.
Buffalo isn’t all that roam out on this range, there are wild donkeys, or wild Asses if you prefer. These crazy creatures will walk right up to you or possibly stick their head into your car window.
It seems that Prairie Dogs are quite prevalent along with Gazelles and Deer. Occasionally there are big-horn sheep and even mountain lions lounging about. Each day brings new activity on the loop so you never know what if anything you may come across.
As with any other wildlife situation, it is important to realize that they are not tame pets and have the capability to cause harm or damage to you and your vehicle. For this reason, it is recommended that you do not approach the wild life and simply observe it in it’s natural habitat.
Talk about sky high, this peaks’ claim to fame is being the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and Europe standing tall around 7,242 feet. Originally this rocky topped point was discovered and held as a sacred landmark for the Sioux Nation due to Black Elk having a vision there.
At one end of Needles Highway you will find Sylvan Lake and at Sylvan lake, you will find the trailhead to Harney Peak. Prepare for an off the grid excursion here. This trail winds you around a giant ridge through the hills for almost 4 miles.
The incline will make you work as you walk. And, the terrain is a rugged mix of loose rocks and tree roots scattered in the dirt. But, oh. The views, magnificent, unparalleled views of the Black Hills.
Once you reach the tower you will climb the final few hundred feet via a stone staircase. When you arrive at the top you will be more than thrilled that you took the trek to be where you are.
My suggestion, pack a lunch or at least some snacks along with plenty of water. Plan an entire day. Make sure you check the weather, it’s a bit nerve-racking to get caught up there in a storm, believe me, I speak from experience. Not to mention, you don’t want your head in the clouds when trying to take in the miraculous view.
Where do I begin with this 19 miles of adventures? The canyon is a geological treasure with rocks dating back 6 million years in some places. And, the streams that carved them out into what the canyon is today still flowing through it.
First of all, if you like to hike there are some grand opportunities here. Spearfish Canyon has everything to offer from paved trails around Roughlock Falls to uncharted terrain leading back to Devils Bathtub. Then, there are trails leading off into the great unknown for miles of exploration.
The road itself is smooth as the day is long and curves in all the right places. Highly recommended for anyone on two wheels. Just rolling through you can enjoy views of the towering ancient rock walls and forest. Then there is the famous Bridal Veil Falls to witness cascading down from above.
Along your journey, you’ll come across the lodge. This little oasis has excellent drinks and food available as well as first-class accommodations. As the road winds it’s way to a T, there is also a small general store with snacks and gifts.
You can easily spend an entire day venturing off in different directions in the canyon. Or, simply roll on through in about 30 minutes, the speed limit stays around the 35 M.P.H. mark.
History, gambling, food, and scenery. What else could you possibly want? Deadwood is an original old west town dating back to the days of Wild Bill Hicock and Calamity Jane. There are many historical sights in town which can be visited privately or on a trolly tour.
Mt Mariah cemetery is one of my favorite stops, resting high above town at the end of Cemetery St. The artistic grave sites and shrines are really something to see and the history is quite interesting.
It isn’t Vegas but the town is boasting several casinos and hotels of all kinds. Try your luck and hope you don’t end up with the “dead man’s hand”.
As for the food, The No. 10 Saloon is home to not only a bar and casino, but, upstairs there is a wonderful steakhouse. About a hundred years or more ago, the restaurant used to be a Bodello. But, you don’t have to tell the kiddos, they will never know.
7. The Badlands
Though the badlands aren’t technically part of the Black Hills they are definitely worth a side trip to visit. Giant land formations of various colors and shapes filled with fossils and ancient history.
The area is located outside to the East of the Black Hills on I-90 and stretches south to highway 44. There is a loop that will take you down through the vast natural wonder.
If you find yourself at highway 44 facing south, take a right and travel down to an old ghost town by the name of Scenic. It’s worth a look. Occasionally, over the years, I have found a bar, museum, general store, and a gas station open. Then other times nothing at all except some boarded up buildings and the old town jail.
The Badlands only receive around 1″ of rain per year. When the rain comes there can be flash floods in the area and the landscape is sure to change. I once waited out a 2-hour downpour under one of the few and only shelters along the route. However, the rest of the year it is generally warmer than the surrounding areas and mostly a desert.
The sunsets and sunrises are particularly amazing out here. The entire 242,756 acres of land is a National Park and a pass is required for entry. It is a small price to pay for such an unbelievable experience.
Always beautiful. Always changing. Never a regretful visit.
This lovely stretch of blacktop stretches from Sturgis to Nemo, winding and rolling along the way. The scenery is lush Black Hills National Forest and limestone carved walls.
One of the treats out on this backcountry drive includes a freshwater spring. This mountain fresh cool running stream is piped out right next to the road and safe to fill your bottles with.
Next up are the trail-heads, for those of you out here to get some fresh air. There is the Elk Creek Trail, Dalton Lake, Veteran’s Peak, and the Deadman Trail System. Each with its own treasure trail, and all worth a walk in the woods.
Once you reach Nemo you can follow the road until you come to HWY 385. Endless places to visit on this highway and you’re sure to enjoy any direction you choose to turn.
9. Hot Springs
The most southern city in the Black Hills, Hot Springs, is a historical mecca. Not only is it home to soothing natural hot springs, and Native American history, but also the Mammoth Site. This little town is known as “The Gateway To The Hills”.
The Mammoth Site houses the largest number of Mammoth remains on earth and is actively being excavated. A giant sinkhole is said to have formed under a pond where the mammoths would often eat and drink. On that note, they would sometimes slip into the hole and eventually perish there. Now, the remains can be viewed from the on-site museum.
Next, on the Hot Springs tour, why not take a dip in the springs that named the town. Actually, the local Indian tribes named the town first, Minnekahta then settlers translated it to Hot Springs. Either way, the waters still flow at 87 degrees year round for your soaking pleasure.
After thought; Hot Springs is the gateway to the hills yet I put it as #9 on my list. Maybe it should have been #1? …Ah well, this list, like your teenagers’ bedroom, has no particular order.
10. The Cosmos
Get ready to be awestruck. Forget the laws of physics and the force of gravity, no such things apply here. The story goes that in 1952 two boys set off into the hills to find a place for a cabin and discovered a place unlike anything you can imagine.
Here, Mother Nature has gone awry. For example, balls roll uphill. Your height seems to change depending on where you stand. It is possible to walk up walls and lean forward to the floor without falling on your face.
One thing’s for sure, I certainly can’t explain it, but you should definitely experience it. Fun for the whole family and a one of a kind adventure.