By Janet Wight
How long has it been since you have visited the Black Hills?
For our family it had been 18 years. So, this past summer we returned to South Dakota for a 10-day vacation. Our group of six (including my mother-in-law and sister) thoroughly enjoyed investigating Sioux Falls, Wall, the Black Hills, Badlands National Park, the Minuteman sites and Mitchell.
It was fun to return to some of our most favorite and memorable destinations from our last trip. In addition, we explored attractions and scenic drives that we had missed the first time. Since South Dakota is a relatively quick drive from Saint Paul, we had easy access to a nice variety of sites and experiences.
Our sightseeing began in Sioux Falls where we stopped at Falls Park, a large urban park designed around a set of waterfalls created by the Big Sioux River. Falls Park has numerous walking and biking trails along with a five-story viewing tower. After an overnight stay in the downtown, we agreed that Sioux Falls definitely warrants, for another trip, further exploration.
The next morning, we continued west on to Wall Drug, famous for offering free ice water to thirsty travelers. Numerous retail shops and a large restaurant were part of the complex and they were filled with an eclectic mix of tourists. We visited Wall several times in order to see the National Grasslands Visitor Center, buy groceries, patronize the drugstore and stock up on fudge.
Then, it was on to the Black Hills where we stayed at the Custer State Park Resort due to the wide variety of available lodging options. The selection includes historic and modern hotel rooms along with all types of cabins, some of which are suitable for large family reunions. By booking a few months in advance we were able to find a cabin that perfectly fit our group. It was our comfortable home base for several days of touring.
Our highlights included exploring majestic Mount Rushmore, getting stuck in an infamous bison traffic jam (our van was surrounded by a dozen of these large animals) and taking an engaging buffalo safari jeep tour. Our safari guide, who grew up in the area, was personable and very knowledgeable about the park. We covered a lot of territory and saw an abundance of wildlife.
The next day we went to nearby Hot Springs for a guided tour of The Mammoth Site. This working archeological dig features a fascinating collection of mammoth bones in situ and it is fully enclosed for year-round viewing.
We also had plenty of scenic drives to enjoy in the Black Hills—three that stood out for their unique qualities. Iron Mountain Road was specifically constructed to allow for vistas of Mount Rushmore. We were delighted to drive around a bend and suddenly notice the four granite faces perfectly framed by a tunnel. Our van fit through these sturdy rock passageways (designed for much smaller automobiles) with a couple of feet to spare. But make sure to check the posted size restrictions before attempting to drive this route.
The Needles Highway was also quite dramatic, showcasing impressive granite spires along the way, with similar vehicle constraints. And last but not least, Spearfish Canyon is a delightful gorge filled with colorful rock. It can accommodate vehicles of all sizes including large motorhomes. It is located in the northern Black Hills west of Deadwood.
Badlands National Park was our next destination on our South Dakota trip as we began heading back to Minnesota. I had vivid memories of the unusual scenery in this park and we encountered even more incredible formations this time. We drove along the entire park road, including the unpaved western section, and stopped at each and every overlook.
Hiking nature trails and attending ranger programs kept us busy for several days. We were fortunate to attend a performance by Kevin Locke, a renowned Native American hoop dancer, during the annual Heritage Celebration, which was held in mid-August. Everyone was encouraged to try this traditional style of dancing during the entertaining evening program.
Our accommodations were the modern and inviting cabins of Cedar Pass Lodge located adjacent to the visitor center and restaurant.
The deactivated Delta-01 Launch Control Facility site, part of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, was one of the most intriguing places we visited. We reserved our tour two months in advance as suggested on its website. A retired Minuteman officer was our guide. During the informative one-hour tour we explored the living quarters and control room and learned about the roles of the employees who worked there.
We visited two additional Minuteman Missile NHS locations which are both nearby along Interstate 90. These are the visitor center, which includes an exceptional museum, and the Delta-09 missile silo. Visiting the museum first allows travelers to appreciate the Minuteman II program prior to exploring the Delta-01 and Delta-09 sites.
On our way back home to St. Paul, we stopped in Mitchell to see the World’s Only Corn Palace. The exterior walls covered with colorful corn murals were the main attraction, but we especially enjoyed the Hall of History inside.
After another overnight stay in Sioux Falls, we made our way to Pipestone National Monument in southwestern Minnesota. A short nature walk was pleasant; we admired the initials of explorer J. N. Nicollet that he had carved into a rock in 1838. All of us were captivated by the Native American craft workers, set up in specially designed workshops in the visitor center, as they carved traditional cultural objects from this soft stone. Pipestone’s charming downtown, with its buildings made from Sioux quartzite, was a delight to photograph.
Overall, South Dakota is a terrific place to enjoy a one- or two-week vacation. There are enough monuments, family-friendly attractions and natural beauty to please every traveler. Tourists are welcomed and we felt right at home among many Minnesotans, yet it is just exotic enough to feel distinctive. Suitable for all travel budgets, a South Dakota vacation is definitely worth the short drive to take in a variety of appealing offerings.
Janet Wight is a resident of Como Park where she lives with her husband and daughters.