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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

A two day road trip from Rapid City South Dakota

The natural beauty of the Black Hills is breathtaking, incredible, monumental, awe-inspiring. There are so many words that can be used to describe the area, but words are not enough. To travel its roads, see the open spaces, smell the fresh air and touch base with nature in South Dakota should be on every road trippers bucket list in the USA.


Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial and the Badlands require their own dedicated days to enjoy. So, an additional road trip in this area was a joy of discovering new and wonderful places for me. I hope that readers of this article may discover their love of these destinations too.


NEEDLES HIGHWAY

Inside Custer State Park is an area of eroded granite pillars, towers and spires. There are over 2,000 summits in this area of the Black Hills. The 14 mile stretch of road is called the Needles Highway. There is a scary narrow tunnel that makes you wonder if a vehicle will even pass through. This is called, "threading the needle". The hole was carved out of the granite to allow cars to gain access to both sides.

a car drives through a narrow gap in towering granite rocks, the hole is just large enough for one car to pass through.

When you drive through, the view over the countryside is breathtaking. The tall spires are a popular rock climbing area, and is extremely busy between spring and fall, the peak climbing season. (yes, I do like a pun!)

from on top of a mountain, the view into the horizon shows granite boulders, pine forests and hills off in the distance

THE WILDLIFE IN CUSTER STATE PARK

The 287km square (71,000) acre Custer State Park has a main 29km (18mi) Wildlife Loop Road. This will take you from the Visitor Center to the Blue Bell Entrance Station.

As well as the buffalo, the park has pronghorn, prairie dogs, white-tailed and mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, coyotes, mountain lions, burros, mountain goats, birds and other small wildlife.


A buffalo can grow to 1.6m (6 ft) tall and weigh more than 900kg (2,000 lb). From the original 36 buffalo here in 1914, up to as many as 1,400 now live in the park.

a mother buffalo and her baby rest in the grass. the herd of buffalo roam the prairie behind them

SYLVAN LAKE

Five miles south of Mt Rushmore, in the Custer State Park, is a picture-perfect lake that is ideal for swimming, hiking, rock climbing, small rental boats, picnics and lakeside walks. I had lunch at the restaurant here and my Rueben sandwich was one of the best I have enjoyed. Sitting outdoors eating a delicious meal and looking out onto the lake was a great stop on my road trip. A walk around the lake was the perfect way to work off the lunch. The 7ha (17 acre) lake has a 1.6km (1mi) shoreline and an average water depth of 4m (13ft).

canoes rest on a lake that is surrounded by pine forest and tall granite rocks. a walking trail is on the shore of the lake.

SPEARFISH CANYON SCENIC BYWAY

This 20mi stretch of road is a natural joy. Undeveloped wilderness on either side of the road, 1,000 feet high limestone cliffs on one side and glimpses of Spearfish Creek on the other.

Spearfish Canyon and the Bridal Veil Falls have been attracting tourists for over a century. The route was called “The Black and Yellow Trail” as tourists came along this road when they went from the Black Hills to Yellowstone National Park. Even architect Andrew Lloyd Wright wrote in a letter in 1935, “But how is it that I’ve heard so little of this miracle and we, towards the Atlantic, have heard so much of the Grand Canyon when this is even more miraculous……The greatest scenic wonders of the world I know now are touched on grand safe highways but not on railroads. My hat is off to South Dakota’s treasures.”

a road and grassy verge lead into a pine forest. granite rocky mountains are seen in the background, under a cloudy sky

Hikers often trek to the pool known as Devils bathtub, from the falls area. The one and a half hour return trail crosses the small Squaw Creek several times before opening onto the pool. Visitors can swim here during the warm summer months.


BRIDAL VEIL FALLS

A sixty foot cascade of flowing water down the side of the mountain attracts many visitors at the falls. Spring is the best time to visit as the water volume increases during this season. An observation platform has been erected to protect the area, and also to make access easier for visitors. A large carpark is located near the falls, and it is just a short walk from there to see this beautiful sight.


LEAD

Lead is a town that has its claim as the largest and deepest gold mine in the Western Hemisphere. The mine was closed in 2002, and the Black Hills Mining Museum here is a gold mine (pun intended) of information. In the 126 years of operations, the Homestake mine produced 41 million ounces of gold.

a large open pit mine has rows of road along its walls that trucks and cars would zigzag down. The different geology of this open earth shows various colours from white, to greys to light and dark browns

The large ring on display is a surviving section of a 100,000 gallon tank used for neutrino experiments at Homestake. Dr Ray Davis received the Nobel Prize in physics for his three decades of research here.

a large ring used deep underground on scientific experiments is upright on display near the deep open pit mine in the background.

DEADWOOD

Deadwood was a wild west town in the gold rush boom of 1876-1879. Names like Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock are synonymous with the town. (the last two are buried in the nearby Mount Moriah cemetery.) Bill was killed in the Saloon #10 bar and historical reenactments are held there several times a day. The poker hand that he held, two pairs of black aces and eights is known as Dead Man’s Hand. From 1989 gambling was legalized in Deadwood, and there are many gambling establishments throughout the town.

the main street of Deadwood is bordered by two storey buildings, housing restaurants, gambling venues and souvenier stores. The pine forest mountains are seen in the background. People wander the street and sidewalks. A chuck wagon is parked in the main street.

PACTOLA LAKE

Located just 15mi from Rapid City is the man made deepest reservoir in the Black Hills.

the Pactola lake as seen from a birds eye view shows heavily forested land and miles of blue lake meandering through the hills

Surrounded by forest, this lake is the perfect place to fish for lake and brown trout, perch and bass. There is a sandy beach that is perfect for families, and has toilet and barbeque facilities.

the blue waters of Lake Pactola have a beach on some of the foreshore, and ample car parks. speedboats are enjoying a day out on the waters. The hills around the lake and into the distance are green with heavily wooded pine trees.

Picnic areas, a marina and campgrounds can also be found here. With a surface area of 3.2sq km (800 acres), and a shoreline of 23kms (14mi) it offers multiple boating, canoeing and windsurfing activities. The remains of the town of Pactola, that was flooded when the reservoir was made, can be viewed by scuba divers.

pine and oak trees completely cover the gently sloping hills near Rapid City,  as far as the eye can see, under a blue sky with gentle white clouds.

HILL CITY

Alpine Inn in Hill City is THE place to eat. There are only two options on the evening dinner menu, both under $20. They do not take reservations, so be prepared for quite a wait (well worth it) and they only take cash or check (definitely no EFTPOS).

1. A Bacon Wrapped Filet Mignon, baked potato, Texas toast and a quarter wedge of lettuce with their delectable homemade ranch dressing

2. Kaes Spaetzle Primavera. (German dumplings with Swiss cheese, topped with fresh steamed vegetables and served with a wedge of lettuce and Texas toast

While waiting for your reservation, go for a stroll along the main street of Hill City. From delicious homemade fudge shops to amazing sculptures made of scrap metal in the main street, there is something for everyone.

a statue of a galloping horse is made of recycled metal material.
close up of a metal horse statue that has used various waste products in its construction. Old shearing combs, old tools etc have made up this amazing piece of art

All the destinations listed above are drivable from Rapid City. My limited time here was spent exploring the area, and I definitely need to come back and discover the attractions of Rapid City itself.


When in the area, I also recommend visiting:


Happy Travels!


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