I left California, chasing the rising sun in the east, looking for adventure in an RV rental with my friends. Leaving the splendor of Yellowstone, we noticed the Black Hills area of South Dakota — an enticing bit of dark green on Google Maps. And with a full tank of gas and the passion to discover something new, we said “Yes” and found ourselves touring the Black Hills of South Dakota.
1. Welcome To Middle America
South Dakota may not be one of the premier destination states that comes to mind when you think of vacation or even road trips. But driving into the Black Hills from the flat monochrome of eastern Wyoming, we were surprised by the sudden rocky hills sprouting up beside us.
The hillsides are dense with trees that cast shadows giving the area its name, but they’re not actually black at all. Instead, they gleam green and grey, red and brown and gold, all depending on what time of the day and season it is. Beauty is in the exact middle of the United States as it turns out. There’s a plaque and everything.
A trip to Belle Fourche, South Dakota will take you to the Center of the Nation Monument and as close as you can get to the center of the entire U.S., including Hawaii and Alaska. The actual center is about 20 miles away on private property. Still, the monument makes an awesome photo opportunity and is worth a quick stop.
2. The Hills Have Eyes
If there was one thing we knew about the area going in, it was Mount Rushmore. The four faces of some of our nation’s most foundational leaders are an emblem of America as powerful as the bald eagle or the waving flag.
The drive to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial leads you up, up, up to a lookout point with the perfect view of the mountain. Take a stop in the visitor’s center for more history on the explosive history behind its creation, or just stroll down the Avenue of Flags for a view of the U.S. state and territory flags. The Presidential Trail is an easy loop that’s only half a mile but provides new views of the memorial and leftover rubble as it winds through the pines.
But these past presidents aren’t the only giant rock faces overlooking the Black Hills of South Dakota. You can also see a monument still under construction — the Crazy Horse Memorial — only about 17 miles from Mt. Rushmore. Once finally complete, it will become one of the largest statues in the world — almost 30 feet taller than the heads of Mt. Rushmore.
While we wait for the construction to finish, the Native American Museum is there to provide the history of the North American Indians and the Lakota who consider the area to be sacred land. Our history is more than the story that neatly fits in our textbooks. This is an experience not to miss.
3. Good Lands and the Badlands
Two major monuments that close together? Like the Grand Circle of National Parks in southern Utah, the Black Hills region of South Dakota is loaded with protected natural places. The Black Hills National Forest spans about 110 miles long and 70 miles wide. Within, there are 450 miles of hiking trails of all lengths and difficulties.
RV campgrounds can be easily found throughout but most do not have any hookups. Tired and on the trail, these woods felt otherworldly compared to the rest of the Midwestern landscape of grasslands and farmlands.
For those not looking to do any extensive hiking, take to the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway for a loop that may take a while but will be more than worth the stunning views. Drive through Custer State Park or plan to stop and stay awhile for camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, and so much more.
Black Elk Peak, a destination on numerous hiking trails within the park, holds the record for the highest point in North America east of the Rocky Mountains. But even inside Custer State Park, there are winding roads to guide you through tunnels and thin, tall rock spires. Beware of crossing wildlife, as the area’s giant free-ranging bison herd has been known to halt traffic.
Or maybe it’s time for something a little different? Wind Cave National Park is located at the southern end of the Black Hills and is one of the longest caves in the world. There are tours available to take you inside, or you can peek in the entrance unaccompanied. Of course, the above-ground component of this park is also gorgeous and not to be neglected.
Drive a bit further east to Badlands National Park whose colorful striped rock landscape is unlike anywhere else. The scenic drive here showed a bit of the many landscapes that make up Badlands National Park and we loved hopping out for short easy trails through the rocks.
Touring the Black Hills
And that was our trip! We were able to make the most out of our week in South Dakota because we had the comfort and flexibility of a great RV. With the freedom to roam at our own pace from a cozy home base on wheels, the magic of the Black Hills in South Dakota became clearer with each mile driven.