Western South Dakota by David Jahner
For many travelers, visiting the Black Hills of Western South Dakota simply means exiting I-90 at Rapid City and following the signs to Mount Rushmore, taking a few obligatory photos of the Shrine to Democracy and then backtracking to the interstate to continue the onward journey to Yellowstone or back home. Those short time visitors don’t realize they are not even scratching the surface of one of the most diverse and beautiful travel destinations in North America.
For those who are interested and willing to explore a bit further in Western South Dakota, one way to begin to grasp the vastness and beauty of the region is to take in some of the most spectacular views the area has to offer. Here are some of my favorites:
Dinosaur Park and Skyline Drive in Rapid City:
By day the view from the top of this hill in the middle of Rapid City offers stunning views of the Black Hills to the west and even more incredible 100+ mile views of the prairie and Badlands to the east as well as downtown Rapid City. At night, the view transforms to make you feel like you’re hovering over the city.
Mount Coolidge in Custer State Park:
Although it is not the highest point in the Black Hills (that’s reserved for Black Elk Peak, the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains), it affords the best views of the region for those willing to take the one-mile gravel road ascent off SD87 to the lookout tower at the top. Not only can you easily see the prairie and Badlands to the east, but it is far enough south to offer unequaled views of the Needles, Crazy Horse Memorial (in progress), Black Elk Peak, and Mount Rushmore. Bring your binoculars and cameras and take your time as you gaze and listen to the wind blowing through the ponderosa pines.
Red Shirt Table Overlook in the Badlands:
This overlook is located in the more remote South Unit of Badlands National Park in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and is my favorite because it seems to come out of nowhere as you’re driving along the prairie of Western South Dakota. All of a sudden there is this dramatic change in landscape. Looking to the east, you can see for almost a hundred miles and see rain clouds that might be 75 miles away. Then, turn to the west and there’s a majestic view of the Black Hills range.
“Spearfish Canyon is the most miraculous canyon in the West,” wrote Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935. I have to agree. While the others I’ve mentioned are notable for their vistas, Spearfish Canyon is twenty miles of the most beautiful scenery I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. If you enter the canyon near the city of Spearfish, you’ll follow Spearfish Creek deeper and deeper into the towering limestone canyon lined with aspen, birch, ponderosa pine, and spruce. Bridal Veil and Roughlock Falls also enhance the beauty of Western South Dakota.
These vistas and byways open the door to the unexpected experiences that await you in the Black Hills and Badlands of Western South Dakota. From outdoor adventures to suit any ability level to family fun activities to artist galleries and festivals and rodeos, there is something for everyone. Mount Rushmore is only the beginning. Let’s plan your personalized experience to this superlative vacation destination.
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