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Beaches and big cities it may not have. But if you’re looking for jaw-dropping natural beauty for your next vacation, Wild West thrills, iconic national monuments, herds of stampeding buffalo, Native American folklore, freaky natural wonders and American history galore then look no further than the Black Hills National Forest and the areas surrounding southwest South Dakota, which is easily accessible from nearby Rapid City. Here is your guide to one of the most beautiful—and often overlooked—areas in the U.S.A. Hint: We recommend visiting between May and September. If you need more help planning, check out the South Dakota Department of Tourism’s web site for tons of great info.

Related: Meet America’s three newest National Monuments.


1. Black Hills National Forest

It’s safe to say that even if you snub your nose at all the national monuments, charming small towns and family-friendly attractions that dot the region, you could nevertheless center an entire vacation around inhaling the clean air and rare natural beauty of this 1.25-million-acre ponderosa pine forest and grassland prairie that covers much of southwest South Dakota and parts of Wyoming. Camping, fishing and hiking are all prime activities, but with more than 5,000 miles of navigable roadways, just throwing the top down and going for a drive is a worthy endeavor.


2. Mount Rushmore

Nestled in the Black Hills in the touristy town of Keystone, this iconic National Memorial is the real deal. Masterfully carved into granite by Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln from 1934-1939, visitors can’t help but stand in awe of the iconic carving which stands an impressive 5,725 feet above sea level and features the likenesses of former presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. While we think that former President Millard Fillmore was totally snubbed, Rushmore is nevertheless a winner.


3. Custer State Park

The Keystone State’s first and largest state park boasts numerous reasons to idle away a day or two, but in our opinion the wildlife is the main attraction. Drive the bucolic Wildlife Loop Road where free-roaming herds of buffalo literally stop traffic as they graze their way across the prairie. The park boasts a herd of 1,500 who are rounded up annually at the Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival in September, but equally entertaining is the “begging burros,” a group of donkeys who come right up to your vehicle in search of edible treats—which visitors are allowed to offer.


4. Deadwood

You know the name from the critically acclaimed but short-lived HBOtelevision series. What you may not know is that Deadwood today is a meticulously restored 19th century Wild West mining town and currently a popular tourist attraction thanks to its Main Street which is a National Historic Landmark District and also legalized gambling—which can be found everywhere around town. Not only do its numerous hotel options make Deadwood an ideal base of exploration, but just wandering in and out of the old-time saloons and soaking up local history is time well spent.

Related: Spot the cool optical illusion in this six-second Yosemite National Park video.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial | Flickr CC: Amy Meredith

5. Crazy Horse Memorial

It may not look like much just yet, but this combination sculpture and museum pays tribute to the culture and contributions of the North American Indian through a large-scale rock carving, which upon its eventual completion will resemble the likeness of warrior Crazy Horse with bow and arrow outstretched and riding atop his steed. The sprawling campus also includes the Indian Museum of North America and Native American Education and Cultural Center, both seeking to educate the public about the tradition and history of Native American people.


Photo courtesy of Jason Heinemann

6. Bear Country USA

Although you might be as reticent as we are to indulge in shameless tourist attractions, the American West is full of rare and exuberant wildlife and many are on display at Bear Country USA—a free-roaming, drive-through wildlife park akin to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Southern California—where from the comfort of your car you can get up close with a variety of creatures including black and grizzly bears, timber wolves, bighorn sheep, reindeer, coyote, Canadian lynx, buffalo, mountain lion, arctic wolves and many more. For the cost of admission, a very fun time.


7. Badlands National Park

We promised freaky natural wonders, didn’t we? Enter the Badlands, a thrilling national park about 60 miles east of Rapid City and consisting of nearly a quarter million acres of eroded buttes, pinnacles and spirals and prairie grasslands currently inhabited by bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets. Rich in fossil beds, the Badlands were once home to sabre-tooth cats and rhinos and today is mostly enjoyed by campers and hikers. The night sky is so starry its even celebrated annually with the Badlands Astronomy Festival every July.

Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming

8. Devil’s Tower National Monument

Have a close encounter with this national monument and geographical wonder, which was featured in the 1979 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Located about 75 miles west of Deadwood in northeast Wyoming, Devil’s Tower was the first declared national monument in the United States and attracts about 400,000 visitors annually who come to gape at the Tower, formed millions of years ago via igneous intrusion (whatever the heck that is). Nevertheless, standing 1,267 feet tall, it sure is an impressive sight to behold.

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Jason Heidemann

Jason Heidemann

Jason is a Lead Content Specialist for Expedia Group, and manages content initiatives across numerous Expedia-owned brands. His work has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, Time Out, the Huffington Post, Chicago Magazine, Passport and many others.

2 thoughts on “8 reasons your next trip should be South Dakota”

  1. Thanks Orbitz, I went there LAST year. I did visit 4 of these; however, you left out the Laura Ingalls WIlder Homestead and Visitor’s Center in DeSmet, as well as the Corn Palace in Mitchell. Americana at its best!

  2. We just got back. Eight days in South Dakota were terrific. Our highlight was the Wild Horse Sanctuary south of Hot Springs. It’s a must-see.

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