The Wonders of South Dakota

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Kadek Susanto / Dreamstime.com

This photo was taken early morning on 2012 in wind cave national park south dakota.

Mistakenly believing that it's hard to reach, many Americans fail to visit the greatest human monument in all the nation, chiseled into the Black Hills of South Dakota. It's called Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and (for Americans) it's on a par-artistically and emotionally-with the Great Wall and the Taj Mahal. It's also only one of many wonders in the southwest corner of the state. They include the otherworldly rock formations of Badlands National Park, the burgeoning bison herds at Custer State Park, the dramatic Native American history and culture at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the Crazy Horse Monument-the world's largest sculpture in the making.

There couldn't be a better time to visit these grand landmarks, in an area of the country where lodging, food, and sightseeing costs are among our nation's least expensive. A Swift Visit to Rapid City Though Sioux Falls is the state's largest town (and airport), you are much better situated for the drive we suggest by beginning the trip in Rapid City, five-and-a-half hours to the west (and thus much nearer to The Badlands and Mount Rushmore). Delta, Northwest, and United Express all fly into the quiet Rapid City Airport (usually via Denver), with United Express tending to be the cheapest of the three. Low-cost car-rental companies at the airport include Thrifty, Budget, and National.

Most tourists on their way to Mount Rushmore speed through Rapid City without stopping, but this neat, clean, and historic town is worth at least a full day's exploration. With well-tended gardens, historical signs everywhere, and interesting shops and restaurants, the city is a standout. And the downtown landmark you won't want to miss is the Hotel Alex Johnson (523 Sixth St., 605/342-1210, www.alexjohnson.com), a 75-year-old, ten-story tower with chalet motifs that somehow fit in. Pick up a walking-tour brochure that describes the property's ornate lobby, woodwork, chandeliers, and artwork. And why not stay here your first night? Doubles start at just $59 in winter, $89 in summer. If it's full, try the modern Microtel Inn & Suites (1740 Rapp St., 605/348-2523, www.microtelinn.com), where rooms start as low as $57 in winter, $82 in summer.

Take time to see the rest of the downtown, with its boutiques, Indian arts stores, and western shops. One store not to miss is Prairie Edge (606 Main St., 800/541-2388), which showcases remarkable Native American arts and artifacts like drums, pipes, jewelry, herbs, and clothing; it's free and interesting to browse, even if you don't buy a thing. Then have lunch or dinner around the corner at the Firehouse Brewing Co. (610 Main St., 605/348-1915), housed in a former old-time, brick fire station whose huge meals-like Hyperventilation Wings and Rings of Fire Fightin' Nachos-sell for only $7.95. You'll see real-life cowboys with Stetsons and tight jeans stuffed into their boots, sauntering about just like in olden times.

Even if you don't stay in Rapid City, stop by the Journey Museum (222 New York St., 605/394-6923, www.journeymuseum.org; $6) before heading on. Recently opened amid much controversy (it went way over budget and is in an awkward, hard-to-find location), the collection here is nothing short of first-class, with all kinds of multimedia and interactive displays on Native American culture and history-everything you'd want to know about South Dakota history, geology, and mythology.

Good times in the Badlands

Now, from Rapid City, head east along Interstate 90 for roughly 60 miles to the famous town of Wall. With billboards and signs for Wall Drug (which began by giving away ice water for travelers during the Depression) stretching from here to the South Pole, the town has become a running joke for cross-country motorists. The actual Wall Drug store (605/279-2175, www.walldrug.com) is a huge souvenir emporium taking up more than one building, offering mostly tacky but fun ashtrays, mugs, and fake bows and arrows, as well as singing mannequins and historical photos of Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Annie Oakley. If you're hungry, Cactus Cafe & Lounge (519 Main St., 605/279-2561) in downtown Wall serves up Mexican food, steaks, and seafood in a down-home atmosphere for rarely more than $10.

From Wall, head south on 240 until you reach the Pinnacles Entrance to Badlands National Park. The $10 car entrance fee is good for seven days ($5 for cyclists or hikers), and you'll want to spend at least two days at this magical outdoor U.S. attraction, rich in visuals and atmosphere.

How did the Badlands get their name?

The French Canadian fur trappers called them les mauvais terres ... traverser, or the "bad lands to travel across." The Native Americans' name for them, mako sica, also meant "bad lands." The reference captured the imagination of the American pioneers who had to traverse this unrelenting terrain in the 1800s. Named a national monument in 1939 and a full-fledged national park in 1978, Badlands, with its rock spires of different hues, is a mystical experience for intrepid domestic travelers. It's a place of intense history and controversy, which continues as Native Americans keep fighting for their land rights in this unforgiving land. Recent sit-in protests by activists postponed the digging up of ancient graves at Stronghold Table, a sacred area claimed by both the Lakota Nation and the National Park Service.

With pointed, jagged peaks made from water-sculpted, crumbling rock, stark canyons in yellow and red tones, and frequent thunderstorms (legend says caused by the mythical Thunder Birds) creating a dramatic purple backdrop, it's amazing it took so long for the beauty of this area to be appreciated and accepted on its own terms. The Badlands lie 62 miles east of Rapid City, on I-90. Turning west on Creek Rim Road after the Pinnacles Entrance, you'll begin to witness the distinct badland formations and see some of the last virgin prairie land in the U.S. Five miles west from the entrance is Roberts Prairie Dog Town filled with mounds of earth dotted with peeking little heads of dogs. A vital member of the ecosystem due to their soil churning, the irresistibly cute prairie canines are endangered by ranchers who would rather see them all gone. Their natural predator, the black-footed ferret, once thought extinct, is still unusually rare. Badlands is one of the few places left to see such amazing creatures.

The one main road east through the park is the Badlands Loop Road, which takes you through most of the park's natural wonders. A must-do is a hike along the Castle Trail near the Interior Entrance to the park. The Mars-like terrain will seem like the setting for a science fiction movie. Ranger talks are free during the summer, on topics ranging from fossils to prairie dogs. More information: 605/433-5361, www.nps.gov/badl.

Near the park entrance are the only lodging facilities in the park at Cedar Pass Lodge (Cedar St., Interior, 605/433-5460), with individual cottages and a decent diner (under $10 for most meals) and gift shop. Doubles start at $55. You can also try the Badlands Budget Host Hotel (Hwy. 377, 605/433-5335), just outside the park entrance and open from May 1 to October 1. The 21 units start at $46 per double. Camping in Badlands National Park is available at two campsites. One campsite is free, the other charges only $10 a night (14-day limit). Call 605/433-5361 for information. And for your meals, try A & M Cafe (605/433-5340), just outside the park on Highway 44 in Interior. It's a very local diner where you can witness real cowboys and Indians munching on fried chicken, homemade pies, and Indian tacos, all under $9. The place feels like a living room.

As you drive west back out of the park on Highway 44, you can take in the wide-open vistas of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland (which, unfortunately, has no buffalo on it but is leased to cattlemen for somewhat destructive grazing by livestock), adjacent to the Badlands National Park.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

A visit to Badlands wouldn't be complete without a detour south to Wounded Knee. Located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (second largest in the U.S.) about 60 miles south of Badlands National Park, this unassuming valley masks a horrific history-it's the site of a genocidal massacre of hundreds of unarmed Indian men, women, and children by the U.S. Cavalry in 1890 (including the Sioux leader Chief Big Foot). A somber graveyard marks the spot, and there's a friendly little visitors center affiliated with the American Indian Movement, with information on current-day Native American politics and the tribes' rough handling by the federal government. (The long, brutal history of Native Americans in this country can be read in the classic book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.) Obviously weary of outside government intervention but extremely friendly to guests, the residents of the Pine Ridge reservation welcome respectful visitors to their famous Sun Dances and powwows-cultural events not to be missed. To witness the ancient rhythms and colors of these Native American rituals is to fall in love with our great country and its land and people once again. For an event schedule, go to www.travelsd.com/history/sioux/powwows.htm, or call 605/867-5821, and also check out the political site www.fireonprairie.org.

There's no place to stay within the reservation, but if you choose to spend a night in the area, do so just south of Pine Ridge near the Nebraska border at the charming Wakpamni B&B (605/288-1868, www.wakpamni.com), a family-run farmhouse getaway amid cornfields, with tepees to sleep in if the spirit moves you. Prices start at $60 for a double.

You're soaking in it

Heading northeast from the town of Pine Ridge on Highway 18, you'll begin the ascent into the Black Hills. One of the first towns you'll encounter is delightful Hot Springs, a turn-of-the-century resort with over 50 buildings built from blocks of pink sandstone. The warm-temperature Fall River goes through the heart of town, and you can bathe in the healing thermal waters at Springs Bath House for only $8 for the entire day (146 North Garden St., 888/817-1972, www.springsbathhouse.com). Whether or not you do have a soak, get out of your car and stroll along the Freedoms Trail, a mile-long sidewalk that follows the banks of the river. You'll also want to stop by the Mammoth Site Museum in Hot Springs (1800 W. Hwy. 18 By-Pass, 605/745-6017, www.mammothsite.com; $6.50), a mass graveyard of over 100 mammoths and other prehistoric animals where you can watch paleontologists work on the bones.

Now you'll want to head north on Highway 385 toward Custer State Park. The hills become forested as you approach Wind Cave National Park (605/745-4600, www.nps.gov/wica), one of the world's longest and most complex cave systems (they still haven't found the end of it). Cave tours of the intricate box work, "cave popcorn," and flowstone formations cost only $6.

Just north of Wind Cave is the superb, 73,000-acre Custer State Park (605/255-4515, www.custerstatepark.info), which is surely as impressive as any national park. These green, rolling hills are home to one of the largest bison herds in the world (at 1,500), as well as an 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road full of pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros that often come right up to your car. The Needles Highway (Hwy. 87), which snakes through the northwest corner of the park, is like a visual fairyland, with thin rock spires magically jutting up above the forest canopy. A must for outdoor types is a hike up the 7,242-foot Harney Peak, a sacred mountain for the Sioux, with breathtaking 360-degree views of the Black Hills from a stone watchtower on its summit. Seven-day passes for the park are $12 per vehicle in summer and $6 the rest of the year.

All the lodges in Custer State Park are impeccably run and world-class-you will definitely want to spend at least one night here. One special recommendation (for which you'll want to make reservations) is the historic stone and wood State Game Lodge and Resort, which President Calvin Coolidge used as his "summer White House" in 1927; its rooms start at $75. Another you can opt for is a full-fledged modern log cabin with a double bed and sleeper sofa that can comfortably sleep four for $99, booked through the Blue Bell Lodge and Resort. Info for either property: 800/658-3530, or www.custerresorts.com.

The heads of state

We finally arrive at the grand finale of the trip: overwhelming, majestic Mount Rushmore National Memorial (605/574-2523, www.nps.gov/moru; $8 parking fee). One of those phenomena that needs to be seen to be believed, the four stunning, 60-foot presidential heads were built between 1927 and 1941 by the eccentric genius Gutzon Borglum (with the help of 400 workers, of course). An excellent visitors center shows films and houses displays of little-known facts and artifacts, like the large, cave-like shrine that is half built behind Lincoln's head, the original plans to also carve out the upper torsos of the presidents, and the controversial decision to include Borglum's friend Teddy Roosevelt in the sculpture. Schedule at least half a day to take in this human achievement that Borglum proclaimed would stand over 10,000 years from now (and no one doubts it).

Nearly every visitor to Mount Rushmore makes a pilgrimage to the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial (605/673-4681, www.crazyhorse.org; $9) off Highway 385, which is also home to the comprehensive Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Cultural Center. Be sure to see Mount Rushmore first, because it will pale in comparison with Crazy Horse, which will be the largest sculpture in the world when it is finally completed (heaven knows when). The carved-out mountain of Crazy Horse sitting on his horse pointing outward is a three-dimensional monument so enormous that the four heads of Mount Rushmore could fit inside of Crazy Horse's head alone. At the request of Native Americans, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began the project in 1948, and his family has since kept the blasting and carving going, relying entirely on private funds.

Avoid the touristy area of Keystone, where everyone stays in cookie-cutter motels while visiting Mount Rushmore (but check out the fun President's Slide, where visitors plunge down a long mountain on a toboggan run for $8-605/666-4478, www.presidentsslide.com). Head instead to more secluded areas of the Black Hills for accommodations. For instance, the Harney Camp Cabins (605/574-2594), located on a creek four miles south of Hill City, are only $45 per double, and that includes the use of a sundeck and hot tub.

Or mosey north to Deadwood (800/999-1876, www.deadwood.org), a historic town and National Historic Landmark popular for its Old West casinos and 1800s buildings. After a gold rush in 1876, prospectors, Chinese laborers, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill Hickok all converged on the town to make it one of the most colorful spots in the West. By all means, try to get a room at the historic Bullock Hotel (633 Main St., 800/336-1876, www.heartofdeadwood.com/bullock), the first real hotel in Deadwood, opened in 1885 (before then, the town had only been full of flophouses and bordellos). Refurbished and full of character, it's the place to stay in Deadwood ($74 a room; slightly higher in summer). Or try the Deadwood Inn (27 Deadwood St., 877/815-7974; rooms start at $69), once a feed store and now a 19-room Victorian hotel with casino.

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