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The Bad and Beautiful Black Hills

The Black Hills of South Dakota could be a professional laboratory for tour planners and tour operators in training. There is so much travel inventory on the shelves here that all manner of itineraries could be concocted — and for all manner of groups.

You can contemplate the cultures of peoples who lived here long before Europeans and Americans “discovered” it, pose with a statue of a U.S. president, watch an Old West shootout in the streets of a town that modern-day gambling revived, tour America’s first nationally protected cave, wonder about missiles tipped with nuclear warheads right under your feet and snap a selfie with a giant tortoise almost as big as a Volkswagen Bug.

“What people really like is that there is so much to see and do in a [relatively] small area — and at the same time, there is room to roam,” said Michelle Thompson, president of the Black Hills and Badlands Tourism Association.

Start With the Obvious

There’s no avoiding Mount Rushmore National Memorial — not that anyone would want to miss this tribute to the birth, growth, development and preservation of the United States as represented by gigantic carved faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Regardless of season or time of day, “The Four Faces of Freedom” grab your attention and give you pause. Just how did 400 carvers accomplish their work dangling off the side of a mountain and not experience a single fatality? Their labor spanned 14 years: 1927-1941.

Mount Rushmore has become an enduring symbol of the nation, and time should be allotted for more than just the long-distance view. Very different perspectives are available on the Presidential Trail, which is 0.6 miles long with 422 stairs.

Rapid City, South Dakota, population 75,000, is the region’s hub with plenty of lodging, dining and attractions, and it capitalizes on Mount Rushmore through its own tribute to our chief executives with its City of Presidents bronze statues. These are life-size figures on nearly every corner downtown. Find your hero — or perhaps one of the obscure ones — for a shared photo. The Secret Service won’t keep you away.

Continue to the Lesser Known

Mount Rushmore and the Badlands are just the start of National Park Service (NPS) treasures in the Black Hills. Two of them hide their most spectacular attributes.

One is Wind Cave National Park, north of Hot Springs. It was the first cave in the world to become a national park and is known for calcite formations called boxwork and frostwork. Approximately 95% of the world’s known boxwork formations are here.

The other is Jewel Cave National Monument. Until 1959, only about two miles of passages were mapped. That number has skyrocketed to 208 miles, making Jewel Cave the third longest in the world.

Speaking of skyrocketing, the newest NPS destination is Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. A new visitor center at this site explains the system of 1,000 Cold War nuclear missiles hidden in plain sight in underground silos. One is available for your inspection, along with the weighty thought of warheads capable of destroying civilization.

Many people believe that Custer State Park warranted national park status along the way, but South Dakota is quite happy to keep it as the crown jewel of its own park system. 

It’s big — 71,000 acres — and it is famous for at least 1,300 reasons. That’s the number of free-ranging bison, second only to Yellowstone National Park. There’s a thundering-herd, Western movie, earth-rumbling roundup every September that attracts plenty of human spectators, but many more people observe the bison during the year on Jeep safaris across the rolling landscape. Seeing the cinnamon-colored calves every spring is a treat.

Beyond the bison, park diversions include fishing, bird-watching, hiking, biking, horseback riding and simply chilling out at four historic lodges. The Game Lodge was President Calvin (Silent Cal) Coolidge’s “Summer White House” for three months in 1927. That’s when he dedicated the Mount Rushmore site.

Press On With the Quirky

Every destination deserves a few aspects that are slightly offbeat, and the Black Hills is no exception.

In this category is Deadwood, South Dakota, a town born in the fever of an 1876 gold rush. It then had more booms and busts than residents care to remember. Its early years were wild, wooly and violent: It was here that Wild Bill Hickok was shot and where Calamity Jane is buried.

It was uber-wealthy in the Victorian era, which accounts for today’s amazing architecture. The town was almost a goner by the 1980s, but legalization of gambling transformed it into a major destination that continues to generate millions of historic preservation dollars for itself and communities statewide.

For groups, it’s a blast. Cowboy re-enactors have repeated shootouts in the street. Restaurants are more plentiful than expected in a town of 1,000 residents. Music is abundant, and history tours tell the real stories. The entire town is a National Historic Landmark District, and it received a Phoenix Award for its revival from the Society of American Travel Writers.

You should expect the cowboy/gold rush/Wild West aura in Deadwood, but almost everyone wonders about Reptile Gardens in Rapid City, South Dakota. The roots of this highly popular roadside attraction date to 1935 when teenage tour guide Earl Brockelsby thrilled — and shocked — guests at another local attraction by removing his hat to reveal a live rattlesnake coiled on his head.

An idea was born, and he opened Reptile Gardens in 1937. Today, it boasts the world’s largest reptile collection, according to Guinness. On the very sedate side, Reptile Gardens also is famous for its tropical botanical gardens.

The mythical jackalope is a star at another world-famous roadside attraction: Wall Drug, out near Badlands National Park. The drugstore that still famously gives away free ice water, a treat when it opened in 1931 in “the geographical center of nowhere,” gradually morphed into a business that pulls in 2 million visitors a year to get doughnuts, enjoy a full meal, buy souvenirs and ride the giant jackalope. It’s too kitschy to bypass.

Learn From the Past

Silliness, fun and games aside, the Black Hills are a place to learn about the native cultures that have revered this land for millennia.

Not 20 miles from Mount Rushmore is another heroic mountain carving: the world’s largest mountain carving, a work in progress that depicts Oglala Lakota leader and warrior Crazy Horse. The larger mission of the Crazy Horse Memorial is to protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of North American Indians.

The campus includes not just the mountain carving, but also the Indian Museum of North America, the Native American Educational and Cultural Center, the Laughing Water Restaurant and retail space that features Native American art.

Prairie Edge Trading Post, a Native American gallery in downtown Rapid City, operates with a similar mindset: educating visitors about the heritage and culture of the Northern Plains Indians and providing Northern Plains Indian artists an outlet for their finest work. You may not see a prettier art gallery anywhere, certainly not one with a story as compelling as this one.

Yet another destination to learn about Native American culture is the Oglala Lakota Living History Village. This new attraction — it opened in 2019 — is a project of the Oglala Lakota Nation and the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce.