As we crossed the state line into Wyoming, Carley honked the horn and we all let out a big yell of happiness. It was the first time any of us had left Colorado since February! After being cooped up in the COVID19 pandemic I don’t think I’ll ever take our freedom to move around for granted again.
My two girlfriends, Carley and Jen, were eager to join me on my pilgrimage to go home to South Dakota and see my parents. In an effort to avoid flying, we decided to drive from Denver to Western South Dakota (only 5.5 hrs from Denver!) where my family would pick me up and take me the rest of the way to my parents who live on the eastern side of South Dakota.
The Drive can be Fun!
We prepped for our trip as we drove. A drive through eastern Wyoming of course prompts the obvious discussion of, “is that a butte, mesa, or plateau”. Google came to the rescue and reacquainted us with the difference that we likely learned in 6th grade Geology class and had long since forgotten.
In anticipation of seeing bison in Western South Dakota’s gem – Custer State Park, we also listened to the Bisonology podcast to learn all about this amazing animal that was nearly wiped out and is now a symbol of South Dakota.
It was shortly over the Colorado Border into Wyoming where we started to see a few Wall Drug signs; a smiles crept over my face – now it really felt like we were on vacation!
Table of Contents
Western South Dakota
Things you can’t miss on your first trip to Western South Dakota
Badlands National Park
Hiking in the Badlands
Where to Stay
Where to Eat
Tips for Visiting Badlands National Park
You can’t ignore Wall Drug
Custer State Park
Driving Scenic Highways
Hiking in Custer State Park
Black Hills National Forest and how it got it’s name
Biking Mickelson Trail
HIking in the Black Hills
Where to Stay
What to Eat
Traveling During Coronavirus
Western South Dakota
I didn’t grow up in South Dakota, my parents simply retired there, on the Eastern side of the state where farms dominate a flat landscape and the wind wails across the prairies. I personally think the eastern region is beautiful in its own way. But South Dakota is most well-known for the hilly forests and national parks and monuments of the western part of the state and that was our first stop coming from Denver.
This was Jen and Carley’s first trip to South Dakota and I was excited to show them how beautiful Western South Dakota is. Plus, Since we were traveling during coronavirus western South Dakota is a perfect destination since you can do so many activities outside!
Things you can’t miss on your first trip to Western Southern Dakota
I have focused on more of the outdoor activities since social distancing is still very important. In addition, you’ll notice in my ‘where to stay and where to eat recommendations’ – they are also fairly Coronavirus friendly. Not everything was opened up or accessible when we traveled through the area in July 2020.
Badlands National Park
The Lakota people were the first to call this place “mako sica” or “land bad” thanks to its extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain. A land so bad, no one would want to try to live there…but one person’s trash is anothers treasure. Badlands National Park is one of my favorite National Parks but it’s also very different from many national parks.
There’s only one road that runs through the park. Even though it’s called a loop road…there is no loop! In fact, the one road isn’t even all paved! We can in at the Southwest entrance to the park with is the most downplayed, lackluster park entrance I’ve ever seen. The road was gravel, there was a small sign, and there was a cattle guard marking the entrance! No ticket booth or visitor center at this end at all!
With very few trees, the Badlands is a barren land, but it’s beautiful land. This is a park you drive through and ooh and aah.
The grass prairie land suddenly gives way to a canyon full of incredible pinnacles, mounds, and ridges made from erosion of the soft sedimentary landscape. Erosion is so rapid that the land forms can change perceptibly overnight as a result of a single thunderstorm. In addition, the erosion reveals colorful bands of flat-lying strata – which make the hills look like they have stripes And if you get there at sunrise or sunset when the sun is lower to the horizon, the stripes in the hills are even more evident and colorful!
Pay close attention as you’ll also likely see some wildlife. We came across some big horn sheep that entertained and wowed us with their incredible balancing skills. But my personal favorite are the prairie dogs! There are a number of prairie dog ‘towns’ at the southwest part of the park, so just keep looking, you’ll eventually find the cute and chatty prairie dogs!
Hiking in the Badlands
You spend a lot of time driving around the Badlands National Park and looking at the landscape from afar. But if you want to actually get closer to these unique land formations, then you should do the Notch hike. It’s only 1.33 miles however it is rated difficult because at one point you have to climb a steep wooden ladder and the trail does have some steep drop-offs. But the payoff is the view at the end where you look out over the Great Plains.
There are other hikes, but do remember that there are barely any trees for shade – so be sure to get your hiking down early in the morning or late in the day to avoid the heat and bring lots of water!
Where to stay
There is a lodge and campground in the park that is open but it fills up fast. However, we decided to camp at the KOA Badlands Campground only 4 miles from the park. It was a great decision that helped us stay pretty isolated amidst coronavirus concerns. There was a shared bathroom at the tented campground, but it was clean and well maintained.
Where to Eat
The campground café was closed due to coronavirus which left us few options for getting food. We were able to eat at the Wagon Wheel Bar and Grille in the tiny (and I mean TINY) little town of Interior only 3 miles away. However – since it was the only place on the south side of the park serving food during the pandemic it was pretty busy serving up basic hamburgers and beer. Luckily, they did have outdoor seating at picnic tables. We sat outside, drank our beers and enjoyed the sunset – it was lovely!
Tips for visiting the Badlands National Park:
- Enter the park from the back way on Sage Creek gravel road. There’s no entrance station there and the approach to the badlands landscapes is more dramatic if you ask me. Plus, there is less traffic in this part of the park!
- The best prairie dog areas are near the back entrance…not necessarily by the signed ‘Robert’s Prairie Dog Town’
- Drive it in the early morning and evening – when the sun is low and the colors and stripes are much more prominent.
- Check the current COVID19 updates to know about closures. When we went the visitor center was closed and some parking lots were closed for construction which meant we couldn’t get access to some of the trails we wanted to hike.
Did you know that there is a Badlands in Canada too? I visited it a few years ago – check it out here!
You Can’t Ignore Wall Drug
You know you are heading to western South Dakota when you see a Wall Drug sign.
Since Carley and Jen were first time visitors to South Dakota, I had to introduce them to the most South Dakota thing there is…Wall Drug. It’s really impossible to ignore, so you might as well just give in and stop there to see what all the fuss is about!
This simple drug store in the small town of Wall South Dakota started with a few billboards for free ice water in 1936 and quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. Now 2 million people a year pull off the interstate and stop at Wall Drug for free ice water, free bumper stickers, 5 cent coffee, and homemade donuts.
Every time I look up from the car there’s another Wall sign on the horizon. All hand painted…all in good shape. They go small when others are big. They place the signs further away from the road when others are close. The signs are created and hand-painted by South Dakota billboard artists. It’s a lesson in marketing as we drive from Custer to Badlands and that’s what fascinates me about Wall Drug.
Those crazy billboards really work—seventy percent of all cars that pass Wall, SD on Interstate 90 stop. And so we too couldn’t ignore the signs and stopped at Wall for lunch. I had actually visited there before, but this was Carley and Jen’s first time.
It’s much more than a drug store these days. It’s actually a block of stores full of kitschy souvenirs, food, western wear, jewelry, art, and more. It’s so big, there’s a map of wall drug. And speaking of maps, on Google maps you’ll find a point of interest for Wall’s 80-foot dinosaur that is at the highway exit.
Even though I did enjoy my donut at Wall Drug, there were waaayyy too many people inside there without masks for my liking at all. In fact, it was the one place that I was the most uncomfortable in regarding coronavirus. I was much more excited about going to see the 80 foot dinosaur outside than I was about going inside Wall Drug! If you want to stay distanced right now – just visit the dinosaur.
Custer State Park
Your first visit to western South Dakota should definitely include a few days in Custer State Park. It is one of the largest state parks in the nation and one of the top places to view wildlife. The array of wildlife within the park’s borders is vast but most impressive is the unbelievable access visitors have to them. In addition to the wildlife, there unique rock formations, called needles or spires, which are incredible to hike and drive around.
Buffalo Safari – If You Are Lucky
When we started out on the Wildlife Loop road in Custer State Park, we were giddy with excited and kept our eyes peeled. But after driving more than halfway around the loop, we were loosing out optimism about seeing the buffalo herd that the park is famous for. The park is home to nearly 1,500 head of North American bison that roam free over the grassland. The wildlife loop weaves around the vast grassland like a ribbon and often you’ll be able to see the herd in the distance.
Just when we were about to lose all hope, I suddenly spotted some buffalo laying down in the trees. Excited for our sighting, we slowed down and took pictures, pointing out the cute babies and big bulls. As we inched along in our car and over the little ridge suddenly we saw the rest of the herd – and they were everywhere.
Since the herd roams free, they often use the road, and suddenly we found ourselves caught in a buffalo traffic jam…my favorite kind of traffic jam to be in. We parked the car along the side of the road and just took it all in for about an hour!
Hopefully when you go – you’ll have good buffalo luck like we did!
Driving the Scenic Highways
Custer State park is the perfect place for a driving holiday – it has a number of scenic drives that you can just sit back and enjoy. It’s not just about the views, but I was also wowed by the design of these highways. It took incredible planning and forethought to build the famous Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road. Their creation was all about making it an incredible drive for visitors.
Completed in 1922, the 14 mile roadway was carefully planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback. Be ready to suck it in as you pass through incredible manmade tunnels through rocks that are so narrow, only certain cars can fit! The tunnels then pop out to spectacular views of the needle formations jutting up from the forest. It’s a drive full of jaw dropping views!
Iron Mountain Road
Iron Mountain Road (17 miles) connects Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. It passes through the Black Hills and three rock tunnels that frame Mount Rushmore in the distance. The planning of those tunnels (or windows to Mount Rushmore) alone is amazing. However, the thing I was most blown away by were the the “Pigtail Bridges” that allow travelers to drop or gain altitude quickly. Think of them as a curly-Q made of timber. The forethought that had to go into constructing this road was incredible (https://www.southdakotamagazine.com/iron-mountain-road
). This highway was built during the carving of Mt. Rushmore and was meant to be paired with any trip to Mt. Rushmore. It was completed in the 1933 and also was the brainchild of Governor Norbeck and C C Gideon.
Hiking in Custer State Park
Even though it’s quite fun to simply drive around Custer State Park, don’t skip hiking there too! We did a couple of hikes in the park that really brought us closer to the highlights of the park.
Cathedral Spires Hike
A moderate 1.5 mile out and back trail is a must do. It’s one thing to see the spires sticking out of the forest in the distance, but it’s another to hike right up next to them! We started from the parking lot on Needles Highway and you go up from there. You’ll know when you reached the end of the trail; there is literally a wooden sign in a tree that reads ‘End of Trail.’ There is a point on the trail that branches and will connect you with the Harney Peak hiking trails too.
You can find more detailed info on the hike on All Trails
Black Elk Peak Hike
Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak) is another heavily trafficked trail that is considered moderate to strenuous. It’s 7.6 miles (that you can make into a loop trail by connecting a few other trails). The trail winds through Ponderosa Pine forest and more exposed rocky areas. You’ll know you are at the end when you reach the historic stone firetower at the top (7200 ft) that provides incredible views.
Black Hills National Forest and How it Got Its Name
Black Hills National Forest bumps right up on Custer State Park and you often don’t know which one you are in! It got its name because it’s filled with Ponderosa Pines. These pine trees have a darker wood and can even appear black. The hills are filled with Ponderosa Pines which make the hills appear black from a distance. This also means that the whole region smells like pine!
Biking Mickelson Trail
I was excited to try out the famous Mickelson Trail on this trip. Completed in 1998, it traverses through the Black Hills from Deadwood to Edgemont, 109 miles. The Mickelson Trail was originally the Burlington Northern line that carried trains from Edgemont to the northern Black Hills and the gold mines of the Deadwood area.
This rail trail transformation has provided visitors a new way to experience the Black Hills in all of its rural beauty. Much of the trail passes through National Forest land, but there are stretches that pass through private property, where trail use is restricted to the trail only. You’ll cross over 100+ stunning trestle bridges, bike along babbling brooks, and go through 4 old rail tunnels on this crushed gravel trail!
I rented a bike from Rabbit Bicycles in Hill City and used their Giddy-up shuttle service to take me up to Dumont and I rode the 32ish miles back to Hill City! The shuttle service it a great way to be able to traverse the entire trail instead of doing out-and-backs. You can leave your car at the end, and then the shuttle will take you to the beginning and drop you off!
Mickelson Trail is actually open to bikers, horses, and walkers/runners. There are 15 trailheads, all of which offer parking, self-sale trail pass stations, vault toilets, and tables. There is a trail fee that you must pay. Check out a complete map of the trail with elevations, distance, and trailheads.
I loved my ride I did. It was a highlight of my time in Western South Dakota and I’m already planning to go back and do a full multi day traverse of the trail and stay at towns along the way.
My only downside to the trail is that there is little to no cell coverage – so if you are biking by yourself like I was, you have to rely on the kindness of strangers if you get into any trouble. Flat tires were a real possibility – and you had no real way to fix them. I was ok with that – but I understand many people would not be. I wish that Rabbit Bicycles would have a Garmin InReach Mini to provide to people who wanted it. That alone could entice a lot more solo cyclers like myself. The shuttle service was nice, but also a bit cost prohibitive for a solo traveler.
Hiking in the Black Hills
While in the Black Hills National Forest, you should also do some hiking among those Ponderosa Pines! We hiked the Spring Creek and Flume Trail Loop, a 4.2 miles easy hike that was a breath of fresh air! It was not busy at all unlike the Custer hikes. Not only do you hike through the forest, but you also hike around a lake shore and little creek that you cross over numerous times. I loved this trail – the smell of the pine alone has me hooked!
It also has an interesting history with it about gold mining in the area and the creation of a flume to transport water. You’ll even hike through some old flume tunnels. This is an easy enough hike that you can wear your water shoes so that when you get to the creek section you can simply walk through instead of taking the bridges if you want!
Read more about the Spring Creek an Flume Trail Loop on All Trails
Where to Stay in Custer Park and Black Hills National Forest
I stayed in two different places while in Custer State Park.
Rocket Motel in Custer is a cute 1950’s throwback hotel that I love. It’s simple, has a nice patio where you can eat or drink outdoors, and the owners are really lovely. The price was reasonable, they give you discounts at local restaurants, and it was nice to support a family run non-chain hotel in this small town!
Read reviews of Rocket Motel on Trip Advisor
If you are looking for something a little more secluded, then check out Rafter J Bar Ranch between Hill City and Custer. They have an RV park (where I stayed with my family) as well as cabins to rent. They have a lovely area filled with trees away from the main road with is great!
Read reviews of Rafter J Bar Ranch on Trip Advisor
Where to Eat in Custer Park and Black Hills National Forest
Besides cooking for ourselves in the RV, we found some great little places to eat that either had a big outdoor patio or had great takeaway.
Maria’s Mexican food truck in Custer will satisfy your craving for Mexican food! The food truck sits on the main street and you can easily take the food to go or eat at picnic tables behind the truck.
Mount Rushmore Brewery – was right across the street from Rocket Hotel (good planning on our part!), and has a big outdoor patio with fire pits and corn hole.
Pounding Fathers – is a finer dining restaurant where you can get delicious steaks and prime ribs! They also have an outdoor seating area. It’s located just above the brewery.
Traveling During Coronavirus
As we drove from Denver to Western South Dakota, we stopped in Chugwater, Wyoming to use a bathroom and then took an obligatory selfie by the Welcome to Chugwater sign. This stop at the gas station was our first taste of stepping out of our Colorado bubble we had been in for 3 months. We masked up and I was a little surprised to see that the clerk at the store wasn’t wearing a mask…nor was anyone else wearing a mask. However, they were selling handmade masks in the gas station which I thought was a bit odd.
This wasn’t the last time we were a bit baffled from traveling in this new age of Coronavirus. At different times each of us were a bit freaked out by the lack of masks or the lack of social distancing, or just lack of options.
We chose a variety lodging options. Overall, the lodging options all felt pretty safe and we were able to adequately social distance for my liking. Granted, staying in a hotel and camping with a shared bathroom did require more touch points – but it still wasn’t too bad.
We camped one night where we had to share bathrooms. It was possible to just be careful and use sanitizer and make sure you washed your hands well there after using the shared space.
We also stayed in an RV which of course is the best option as you can easily social distance with your own bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom!
We also stayed two nights at a hotel. The hotel gave us the option on if we wanted our room cleaned and we opted out of that so that we didn’t have people coming into our room. The owner also sanitized the keys right in front of me as I was checking in so that was nice. There was also sanitizer provided at the lobby. The owner didn’t wear a mask, but then again, few people in South Dakota were wearing masks. The hotel also had an outdoor patio that was great for relaxing outside and eating outside.
We chose all outdoor activities – and that’s perfect for a social distancing vacation! We hiked, biked, and also did scenic drives. We really came into contacted with few people. We did go into visitor centers in Custer Park to use bathrooms, but there was sanitizer available and they were limiting how many people were allowed in.
The most at risk I ever felt was taking the bike shuttle for Mickelson Trail. However, I could have easily skipped the shuttle and simply done an out-and-back bike ride. The driver did not wear a mask which was unfortunate.
Out of everything on this road trip, eating and social distancing was the most challenging. Normally you would do a hike or have an active day and then stop somewhere local for a beer or food. However, in this Coronavirus times, it’s not that simple any more. You have to find a place that has outdoor seating or lets you take it to go. Plus, I found that many restaurants were closed due to the pandemic yet – so you never really knew what was open and if you could stay social distant. It just took longer to find what you were looking for. So remember to be patient and have plenty of snacks and drinks with you in case of emergency!
One very disappointing thing about this specific trip was that nearly all of the restaurants we went to had social distancing in place, but they didn’t require their waitstaff to wear masks! I don’t understand why you would go to all of the trouble to disinfect menus, move your tables, etc and then have a wait person some up to your table without a mask and stand two feet away from you and take an order! This was very much a South Dakota specific thing. I felt uncomfortable every time I went into a restaurant even though I was eating outside on the patio.
Lack of Connection When Traveling During the Pandemic
I think my biggest realization and sadness about traveling during this time was that socially distanced travel means you don’t really connect with anyone besides the people you are with (so you better like them!).
Travel is all about connection to place and you generally get that through the people you meet. As a writer, I always look for the cool connections I can make with locals and guides to learn more about a place and really experience it. But on this trip we didn’t interact with people really besides waiters – and since they weren’t wearing masks I didn’t really want to talk to them long!
Plus – we didn’t have any guided tours either, so there was no one there to connect with and ask questions. Instead we heavily relied on Google when we had a question about why they call it the Black Forest, or what is the difference between a mesa and a butte. Going forward I think that’s how it’ll be for a while sadly. Google will have to be your connection.
Regardless – none of this will make me stop traveling. Most of the time it was easy to social distance. I’m already taking off on my next road trip this week!
PIN IT FOR LATER!