This morning, as you head for South Dakota, prepare to be introduced to some of the most unusual scenery in America. Sandstone desert and twisted rocks jutting out of the ground are coupled with the dense Black Hills National Forest, which does indeed, look nearly black from a distance. The hot springs dotting the area were the result of water pressure being caught underground when the earth changed position. At Mammoth Hot Springs, the remains of mammoths are still being discovered in the “sink-hole” that turned into a steeply sided pond.
When you’re in the region, plan to leave plenty of time to explore Badlands National Park, a 244,000 acre treasure trove of Oligocene fossils dating back 37 million years juxtaposed with buttes, spires and pinnacles.
Two visitor centers offer interpretive exhibits on the cultural and ecological heritage of the Park. The Badlands Loop National Scenic Byway, which passes through the Park has 14 designated overlooks on the 31.5 miles that let you enjoy the dramatic landforms sprouting out of the mixed grassy prairie.
Nearby, Wind Cave National Park was named for the constant movement of air within. It is filled with delicate boxwork, an unusual cave formation composed of thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs.
Above ground, the fragile mixed-grass prairie is home to diverse wildlife. Jewel Cave National Monument is 135 miles long, making it the second longest cave in the world. Air currents indicate there are still vast areas left to discover. Back in Rapid City you can visit the Journey Museum, which illustrates the 2.5 million year geologic history of the region. It was voted the best museum in the Black Hills.
The 71,000 acres of Custer State Park are truly one of the last wild places in America. Nearly 1,500 bison, commonly called buffalo, roam the prairies and hills which they share with swift pronghorn, shy elk, sure-footed mountain goats and curious burros. You can enjoy and up-close and personal encounter with these permanent residents along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road that winds around the southern edge of the park.
Be sure to allow time for the other scenic drive that takes you past slender granite formations called "Needles" that dominate the skyline. These unique rock outcroppings are an excellent place for rock climbers to push themselves to the limit. With its winding roads and small granite tunnels, Needles Highway (SD Highway 87 between Sylvan Lake and Legion Lake) is not only stunning, but fun to drive.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is connected to the other Black Hills attractions by another scenic road, the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway, named after the South Dakota Governor who began the movement to preserve the natural treasures of the state. On the Byway, the Crazy Horse Memorial is the largest sculptural project in the world. The best time to visit Mount Rushmore is in the evening when the monument is illuminated. During the 45-minute Evening Program in the park’s outdoor amphitheater, you’ll enjoy a ranger talk, the film “Freedom: America’s Lasting Legacy” about the presidents carved into the mountain, and the lighting of the sculpture.