The Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

Discover Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Sioux Falls, and more on a road trip through South Dakota

South Dakota was made for road trips: There are scenic, paved roads that lead to national treasures, natural anomalies, perfectly preserved Wild West towns, and quirky attractions. Whether you’re a history buff, foodie, or nature lover, this Midwest state delivers. Read on for the ultimate South Dakota road trip itinerary including where to stop, what to do, and more.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mitchell Corn Palace

Any drive through the Midwest will bring you face-to-face with cornstalks taller than you can imagine. The Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota celebrates all things corn—starting with this prairie town in the middle of nowhere. A pair of rounded turrets and two massive domes thrust into the sky capping off walls adorned in six different types of native grass and multi-story murals depicting famous South Dakota sights. A marquee reading “South Dakota Home Grown” stands over the main entrance. All of it is made from multi-colored ears of corn.

Wall Drug Store © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wall Drug Store

Nestled in the town of Wall in the western part of the state, Wall Drug has grown from its humble beginnings in 1931 to a thriving oasis. Wall Drug offers dining, activities, gifts and souvenirs, visitor information and, of course, free ice water. Many road-worn travelers stop at Wall Drug and leave awake and refreshed just like they did more than 80 years ago. 

Wall Drug Store © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it wasn’t always a thriving business attracting 2 million visitors each year to the small town of Wall. Ted and Dorothy Hustead struggled to make Wall Drug successful in the early days. But the story of Wall Drug was a story of success because one simple idea took root: Offering travelers free ice water. Soon travelers would make a point to stop at Wall Drug to enjoy a refreshing break and they haven’t stopped coming to Wall Drug since. Stop at Wall Drug and see what the excitement is all about.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

At first blush, it doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! But it’s gorgeous with towering, striated red-and-gray rock formations. Not to mention all the wildlife visitors can see here—big-horned sheep, bison, pronghorns, burrowing owls, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs. Native Lakota people named this 400-square-mile maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles, and spires “Mako Sica” or “Bad Land.” Nowadays, it is usually tagged as “surreal” or “otherworldly.” State Route 240—also known as the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway—leads visitors on a 38-mile odyssey through the center of the park. The route features 16 scenic overlooks and eight trails, ranging from handicapped-accessible quarter-mile boardwalks to a 10-mile-long trek.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park

Nearly 1,300 magnificent bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres which they share with the swift pronghorn, shy elk, sure-footed mountain goats, and a band of curious burros. Visitors often enjoy close encounters with these permanent residents along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road that winds around the southern edge of the park. Slender granite formations nicknamed “the needles” dominate the skyline, and grassy meadows fill the valleys. Visitors can explore the park via trail rides, scenic drives, mountain bikes, paddle-boats, hay rides, and even safari tours.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway

The Needles Highway is more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway. Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing.

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Midway along this route, a turnout called The Cathedral Spires offers stunning views of the rocky outcroppings juxtaposed with Harney Peak, the highest point between the Rockies and the Alps.

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore

It’s finally time to see the Founding Fathers’ faces carved into the mountain—the enormity of the sculpture is truly a sight to see. Each year, approximately three million tourists from all over the world visit Mount Rushmore to experience this patriotic site. Today, the wonder of the mountain reverberates through every visitor. The four “great faces” of the Presidents tower 5,725 feet above sea level and are scaled to men who would stand 465 feet tall. The park includes a half-mile walking trail, museum, gift shop and dining room. 

Worth Pondering…

Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.

—Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore Sculptor, 1930

Your Next Adventure Is Set In Stone

There is more than gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Above dense forests and pristine streams, Mount Rushmore National Memorial represents a national treasure. Symbolizing the ideals of freedom and democracy, it is a tribute to four presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln and their invaluable contributions to the United States.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial represents not only the past, but also a promise for the future. It is a place surrounded by American history where the names of Gutzon Borglum and Crazy Horse are still heard, buffalo once again run free in Custer State Park, and the vision of the Keystone miners still cast a shadow on long deserted claims.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Freedom, justice, hope—South Dakota‘s beloved national memorial, Mount Rushmore, is a testament to these deeply cherished American values. The quartet of presidential busts carved into a granite peak in the Black Hills is one of the most iconic symbols of the United States.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In fact, the colossal, 60-foot profiles of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt are so instantly recognizable, they’ve been spoofed in commercials, used as film backdrops, and reproduced in all sizes and forms including a 3 million-piece construction at Legoland. But for all of Mount Rushmore’s widespread fame (and 3 million annual visitors), it’s also a place with a deep history and plenty of little-known facts.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, 30 minutes from Rapid City, this colossal monument was the brainchild of state historian Doane Robinson, who conceived of the mountain carving in 1924 as a way to draw people from all over America to his state.

Whether a lifelong destination or a stop on a road trip, your visit to Mount Rushmore will be one you will tuck in your memory book forever.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is located in Keystone, South Dakota. It is surrounded by the lands of the Black Hills National Forest. It offers a unique experience year-round for outdoor adventures, sightseeing, and opportunities to soak up the history that surrounds the area.

Get there early for the best lighting conditions, or exercise your low-light skills with photos of the nightly lighting ceremony. Regardless of your timing, make sure to explore the many photo opportunities from different vantage points along the half-mile-long Presidential Trail.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chad Coppess, staff photographer for Travel South Dakota, recommends a spot right off the trail, which takes you down a little spur between two giant boulders. Look through a big crack between them to frame the Presidential faces from a vantage point often overlooked by most visitors.

Enjoy the works of genius by touring the various exhibits at the Sculptor’s Studio or Lincoln Borglum Museum. Both self- and ranger-guided tours are available.

Stroll the Avenue of Flags with flags representing 56 states and territories lining the walkway. View the memorial against the evening sky each night at the amphitheater (May through September) during the Evening Sculpture Lighting Ceremony. A sense of awe will come over you as the Memorial lights up the sky.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A short stroll along the Presidential Trail will provide close access to the sculpture. More intimate views of the artwork are available along the way as either a self- guided or ranger-guided walk.

Two other trails lead to Borglum View Terrace and the Sculptor’s Studio: One is a nature trail that starts from the main entryway; the other is a steep trail with uneven steps that starts from Grandview Terrace.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here’s the thing, visit South Dakota once and the place SELLS ITSELF. Much more than just the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, and the Badlands, SoDak is the most scenic places you knew nothing about. Until now.

You don’t carve the faces of presidents into a mountain unless you’re doing something right.

If you’re using Google Maps to locate this national landmark, be very, very specific. Apparently, general searches for Mount Rushmore often send travelers astray. If you find yourself at a Methodist campground called Storm Mountain Center, you’re about 12 miles away from the memorial.

Worth Pondering…

Great Faces, Great Places. Find your great place.

The Best State Parks for Fall Camping

Campers fall paradise

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, camping has offered travelers an excellent alternative to hotel stays, air travel, and cruising. As summer gives way to fall, there’s never been a better time to reconnect with nature while still practicing social distancing. As the leaves begin to turn, here are seven one-of-a-kind state parks where campers will feel right at home this autumn.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park: Blairsville, Georgia

If you’re looking for a park with mind blowing fall color, head to Vogel-ville. Vogel State Park is one of Georgia’s top parks to see fall foliage in October. To reach the park, travelers can drive through the Chattahoochee National Forest on Wolf Pen Gap Road. Even the drive into the park is something special.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia

Located between Front Royal and Luray, this 1600-acre park takes beautiful advantage of the Shenandoah River and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Come for the leaves—but stay for the hiking, the mountain biking, the horseback riding, the canoeing, or the ziplining. More than five miles of shoreline border the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and a small-boat launch is busy on weekends with canoeists, kayakers, rafters, and tubers. More than 24 miles of well-marked trails take you on level ground by the river or up steep inclines to ridgetop views.

Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Ranch State Park, Arizona

The tree-lined lagoons at Dead Horse Ranch are a sight to behold during late September and October! Golden hues reflecting off of the still water put the mind at ease and cause thoughts to wander toward beautiful destinations. Feeling adventurous? Take a hike down the adjacent Verde River and explore the limitless beauty of a riparian fall. Absorb even more of Arizona’s beautiful autumn display by booking a spot in the expansive campground or in one of the secluded cabins. Stay for a while and collect as many colorful memories as possible before the leaves fall and it’s too late.

Roosevelt State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roosevelt State Park, Mississippi

Conveniently located between Meridian and Jackson, Roosevelt State Park is known for gorgeous scenery especially during the fall, thanks to its close proximity to Bienville National Forest. The park offers an abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities in a picturesque setting. The gently sloping landscape is particularly striking in autumn when the forest is bright with fiery colors. The park offers 109 RV campsites, primitive tent sites, 15 vacation cabins, motel, and a group camp facility. These facilities are located in wooded areas with views of Shadow Lake.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

For an awe-inspiring, eye-popping autumn experience plan a fall color drive in the Black Hills. Consisting of 71,000 acres, Custer State Park encompasses rolling hills, granite peaks, and beautiful lakes and wildlife around every corner. Start your adventure as you travel on the back roads out of Keystone where you will see large stands of birch and aspen. As you travel through the Needles Highway the rich fall colors are from the birch and quaking aspen trees. The bright purples of the Dogwood and the soft green of the Russian olive will keep the color seekers eyes occupied for a while. Watch for the bison, pronghorns, wild burros, and deer along the Wildlife Loop. Many of the elms are a stark yellow contrast to the darker oaks. The ash trees have the speckles of orange like sparks from a campfire.

Lackawanna State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania

Offering gorgeous vistas of fall foliage, the 1,445-acre Lackawanna State Park is in northeastern Pennsylvania, ten miles north of Scranton. The centerpiece of the park, the 198-acre Lackawanna Lake, is surrounded by picnic areas and about 15 miles of multi-use trails winding through forest. Boating, camping, fishing, mountain biking, and swimming are popular recreation activities. The campground is within walking distance of the lake and swimming pool, and features forested sites with electric hook-ups and walk-in tent sites.

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Park, Louisiana

For generations, a blend of history and legend has drawn visitors to this meeting place of incredible natural beauty and unique historical background. At Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Park, visitors are introduced to the diverse cultural interplay among the French-speaking peoples along the famed Bayou Teche. Many visitors may be familiar with the 1755 expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia, and their arrival in Louisiana, as portrayed in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1847 epic poem Evangeline.

Worth Pondering…

Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale.

―Lauren DeStefano, Wither

America’s Best State Parks

Check out the best of the best in our list of the most enchanting state parks in America

State parks are giving national parks a run for their money drawing an average of 807 million visitors annually.

Each state has a considerable amount of protected land with state park designation—a whopping 18,694,570 acres, to be exact. With 8,565 parks and 14,672 trails to explore, chances are there’s a local park worthy of a day trip. As a bonus, state parks also offer grandeur, history, and natural beauty.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rock State Park, Arizona

Red Rock State Park isn’t your everyday desert landscape. In fact, this 286-acre nature preserve is home to lush green meadows, juniper, Manzanita, and is adorned with miles of striking red rock formations. The park offers 5 miles of interconnected, family-friendly trails that traverse a variety of unique desert habitats.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Highlights: Take a scenic drive along Arizona State Route 89A which winds its way through Oak Creek Canyon and provides several places to pull over and picnic or snap photos of incredible, colorful rock formations.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

You might be heading to South Dakota to catch a glimpse of Mount Rushmore but while you’re out exploring the Black Hills there’s another South Dakota gem you’ll want to add to your bucket list. Named one of the World’s Top Ten Wildlife Destination and one of the country’s largest state parks, Custer State Park is 71,000 acres of granite cliffs, rolling plains, and beautiful mountain wilderness.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Highlights: Drive the Wildlife Loop to see a variety of wildlife including bison, antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and elk. Or, drive along Iron Mountain Road for incredible, panoramic views of the Black Hills and unique vantage points of Mount Rushmore.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Despite its grisly name, the view from Dead Horse Point remains one of the most scenic vistas in the world. Towering 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, Dead Horse Point is an iconic peninsula of rock sitting on top of incredible vertical sandstone cliffs that was formed by geological activity millions of years ago.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Highlights: Pack a camera and drive along Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway to experience the park’s deep canyons and ridges via a variety of scenic overlooks, including the most notable overlook: Dead Horse Point Overlook.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mon­a­hans Sandhills State Park, Texas

The wind sculpts sand dunes into peaks and valleys at Mon­a­hans Sandhills State Park offering a Texas-sized sand­box for kids of all ages as well as close-up views of a unique desert environment.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Highlights: Bring a picnic and spend the day exploring on foot or horse­back. Rent sand disks and surf the dunes. Learn about the park and its natural and cultural history at the Dunagan Vis­i­tors Center. Set up camp and witness spec­tac­ular sun­sets.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park, Alabama

There is something for everyone inside Gulf State Park with two miles of beaches, a spacious campground, and a brand new Lodge and Conference Center. There’s gorgeous white sand, surging surf, seagulls, and a variety of activities, but there is more than sand and surf to sink your toes into. 

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Highlights: Gulf State Park has a multitude of activities to participate in including hiking, biking, fishing, exploring, geocaching, and paddling with beach vendors offering parasailing and kayaking. 

Elephant Butte Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico

The largest and most popular lake in New Mexico, Elephant Butte Lake State Park provides a setting for every imaginable water sport. The campground offers developed sites with electric and water hook-ups for RVs. The mild climate of the area makes this park a popular year-round destination.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Highlights: If you like camping, fishing, boating, or just being outdoors, Elephant Butte is for you. Elephant Butte Lake can accommodate watercraft of many styles and sizes: kayaks, jet skis, pontoons, sailboats, ski boats, cruisers, and houseboats.

Worth Pondering…

Stuff your eyes with wonder…live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.

—Ray Bradbury

Best Places to Plan a Hiking Trip

These are some of the best places to hike in the United States from Virginia to Utah and South Dakota to North Carolina

Many Americans are rediscovering favorite pastimes during the COVID-19 pandemic including exploring outdoor areas. Because you can breathe fresh air and get away from enclosed spaces, this can be a great time to plan a hiking trip. Being outdoors is one of the most effective ways to avoid close contact while enjoying exercise and leisure.

It’s possible to explore a natural marvel in your backyard or scratch a national park off of your bucket list. You may also try to find little-known hiking trails to avoid large crowds and to make a memorable road trip.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Moses Cone Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway

The National Park Service maintains the Blue Ridge Parkway which is 469 miles across Virginia and North Carolina. While the visitor centers and campgrounds are not open, most hiking trails are. Some notable landmarks to hike include:

  • Humpback Rocks Visitor Center, Humpback Rocks Trail (MP-6; Length: 1 mile one-way)
  • Peaks of Otter, Sharp Top Trail (MP-86; Length: 1.5 miles one-way)
  • Moses Cone Park (MP-294)
  • Linville Falls Visitor Center, Erwins View Trail (MP-317; Length: 0.8 miles one-way)
  • Craggy Gardens, Craggy Gardens Trail (MP-364; Length: 0.8 miles one-way)
  • Mount Pisgah, Mount Pisgah Trail (MP-408; Length: 1.6 miles one-way)
Blue Ridge Parkway, Peaks of Otter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over 369 miles of hiking trails are in the parkway. Some portions of the parkway are near the Appalachian Trail and the Mountains to Sea Trail. You might be able to hike on these trails if time allows.

Appalachian Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Appalachian Trail

Serious hikers dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail spanning 14 eastern states. As life is different this year, you won’t be able to hike the full trail at one-time easily. Most shelters are not open, so you may have to avoid an overnight hiking trip. Each state from Maine to Georgia has its unique gems. You can explore “Wild and Wonderful” West Virginia with its 28-mile stretch near Harpers Ferry.

Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park

National parks offer many travel opportunities but several state parks are great too. South Dakota’s Custer State Park has driving and hiking trails. You may enjoy seeing the buffalo and hiking in the Black Hills. Four hiking trails include:

  • Cathedral Spires Trail (Length: 2.3 miles return)
  • Little Devil’s Tower Trail (Length: 1.5 miles one-way)
  • Prairie Trail (Length: 3 miles loop)
  • Sylvan Lake Shore Trail (Length: 1 mile loop)
Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Utah has plenty of things to do outdoors. Zion National Park is one of the state’s hiking paradises and has the privilege of being Utah’s first national park. But there are some temporary restrictions to be aware of before traveling. First, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is only accessible via park shuttle with reservations required in advance. Second, the Kolob Canyons area is not open until further notice.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You may also need to avoid contact with park streams due to toxic cyanobacteria bloom. Make sure you bring plenty of extra drinking water for this hiking trip. Despite these restrictions, there’s plenty to see by foot in Zion including:

  • The Grotto shuttle stop, Angels Landing Trail (Length: 5.4 miles round trip)
  • Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop, The Narrows (Length: 5-9.4 miles round trip, depending on how far you go)
  • Zion Lodge shuttle stop: Emerald Pools Trail (Length: 1.2 mile round-trip loop to Lower Pool; 2 miles round trip to Middle and Lower Pool; 2.5 miles round trip to Lower, Middle, and Upper Pools)
  • Trailhead on UT-9 beyond first tunnel, Zion Canyon Overlook Trail (Length: 1 mile round trip)
  • Watchman Campground, Watchman Trail (Length: 2.7 miles round trip)
Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also, consider hiking Utah’s Bryce National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, or Arches National Park if you want to try something different. Utah has laudable state parks as well, including Dead Horse Point State Park.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summary

National parks tend to have the best hiking trails, but state or local parks are hidden gems as well. You may try to explore lesser-known areas to avoid large crowds. You can still enjoy the great outdoors and the views may rival those of the most popular hiking trips.

Worth Pondering…

As soon as he saw the Big Boots, Pooh knew that an Adventure was about to happen, and he brushed the honey off his nose with the back of his paw and spruced himself up as well as he could, so as to look Ready for Anything.

—A. A. Milne

The 10 Best State Parks in America

These underdogs can hold their own against the national parks any day

America’s 62 national parks may get all the glory and the Ken Burns documentaries but nearly three times as many people visit the country’s 10,234 state parks each year. In total, they span more than 18 million acres across the US—or roughly the size of South Carolina.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This summer with so much of the world effectively grounded and many national parks limiting access and services, state parks are poised for a long-overdue place in the spotlight offering a chance to get out, stretch, and explore. Below you’ll find the cream of the state-park crop from picturesque mountainscapes and deserts, lakes and ocean beaches, and expansive hikers’ playgrounds. Time to get outside! Here’s how to do it right.

NOTE: Be sure to double-check each park’s status before making the trip—as with most things right now, their status can change day by day.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina

It may be South Carolina‘s most visited state park but that doesn’t stop this secluded barrier island located 15 miles east of Beaufort from being one of the most picturesque destinations in the South thanks to its famous lighthouse, pristine beaches, and popular fishing lagoon. Fun fact: many of the Vietnam scenes from Forrest Gump were filmed here.

Adirondack Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adirondack Park, New York

Part state park, part forest preserve, and part privately owned land encompassing 102 towns and villages, Adirondack Park is massive. Totaling 6.1 million acres, America’s biggest state park is larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. Nearly half of the land is owned by the State of New York and designed as “forever wild,” encompassing all of the Adirondacks’ famed 46 High Peaks as well as 3,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of river. So pack up the canoe or kayak, get ready to scale Mount Marcy, or simply meander about its 2,000 miles of hiking trails. You’re gonna be here a while.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico

Elephant Butte Lake State Park is just over an hour north of Las Cruces, bordering the Rio Grande. As New Mexico’s largest state park, there are plenty of outdoor activities for everyone. Fishing, boating, kayaking, and jet skiing are all commonplace at Elephant Butte Lake. For less water-based activities, you can enjoy the 15 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails around the lake. Camping is allowed, including along the beach.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Located in South Dakota‘s fabled Black Hills region, the state’s first and largest state park is most famous for its photogenic herd of 1,500 wild bison that freely roam the land as well as other Wild West creatures like pronghorns, bighorn sheep, burros, and mountain lions. The scenery is everything you think of when you close your eyes and picture the great American West, laid out amidst 71,000 acres of vast open vistas and mountain lakes. There’s biking, boating, canoeing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing, wildlife watching, and swimming. The place is so cool that even President Calvin Coolidge made it his “summer White House,” so that has to count for something, right?

Myakka State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Myakka State Park, Florida

At 37,000 acres, Myakka is one of Florida’s most complete outdoor experiences. Given you need ample time to see and do it all, you can camp in one of 80 camping sites. The road through the park is seven miles long and offers several great places to get out, enjoy the wildlife and scenery, and take a walk. The park road also makes an excellent bike trail. By bike, you enjoy the 360-degree view of the spectacular tree canopy over the road and the constant sounds of birds.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park, Alabama

The 6,000-acre Gulf State Park offers more than 2 ½ miles of white sand beaches, a convention site, 468-site campground, resort inn, modern 2 and 3 bedroom cabins, nature center, interpretative programs, family resort, marina, 18-hole and 9-hole golf courses, tennis courts, and an 825-foot pier—the longest on the Gulf of Mexico.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Arizona

Neighboring the Coronado National Forest, Catalina State Park is located at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains and offers a variety of hiking trails available for on-foot travelers, bicyclists, and horse riders alike. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. There are 120 campsites available, 95 with water and 50/30 amp electric service. Most sites are spacious and level easily accommodating the largest of RVs.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Sprawling out across a stark expanse of 600,000 acres, California’s largest state park (and second-largest in the lower 48) is a crown jewel of America’s state park system. By day it has 110 miles of hiking trails to explore and 12 designated wildlife areas and by night the huge desertscape delivers some of the best stargazing in America. The park is also a site of great geological importance as it has been found to contain over 500 types of fossils that are up to 6 million years old. If you can’t picture the prehistoric vibes on your own, there are also 130+ giant metal animal sculptures that pop up out of nowhere as you roam the park’s unforgiving terrain.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

You could be forgiven for thinking you drove to Utah and ended up in the Grand Canyon instead. Mountain biking the Intrepid Trail is a must for thrill seekers, but the more relaxed can simply gaze open-mouthed at the deep-red rocks and glorious hues via panoramic vistas of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. The park gets its name from horses that died in this unforgiving landscape and with much of the park open with unfenced cliffs and little signage you’re best exercise a bit of common sense if you want to make it out of here alive.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park, Georgia

Vogel State Park is in the heart of north Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains, 11 miles south of Blairsville. One of Georgia’s oldest and most beloved state parks, Vogel is located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. At 2,500 feet elevation Vogel State Park maintains a cool evening temperature even in the dog days of summer, making this a great stop for camping. 

Worth Pondering…

Once in a lifetime, if one is lucky, one so emerges with sunshine and air and running water that whole eons might pass in a single afternoon without notice.

—Loren Eisley

Needles Highway: National Scenic Byway in the Black Hills

Driving the Needles Highway isn’t about getting to the next destination—it’s about taking in the scenery

Highway 87 in South Dakota might not be that long, but it’s 14 miles of really awesome road that twists and turns its way through some of South Dakota’s most stunning natural scenery. This curvaceous stretch of narrow pavement, known as Needles Highway, travels through unique rock formations in the southeastern portion of Black Hills National Forest.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We traveled southbound from Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota south into South Dakota for about four hours. Eventually, the oil derricks and rigs dotting the North Dakotan landscape gave way to vast and open tracks of South Dakota.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s a desolate place with a hauntingly beautiful feel. It consists of mostly flat and wild grassland. Colorful buttes and mesas pop up here and there. But then the Black Hills start.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is nothing quite like the Black Hills of South Dakota. Around Black Hills National Forest, one finds numerous well-known sites including Mount Rushmore, the work-in-progress Crazy Horse memorial, the town of Sturgis—famous for the Motorcycle Rally attracting 50,000 motorcyclists each year for ten days of wild partying, and Deadwood (famous for its gold mining and heavy-handed gambling past, also the resting place of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane). Of course, all of these sites are interesting and merit a visit of their own, but, when it comes to natural beauty, few can match the Needles Highway.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First arriving in the Black Hills, the thought “Black Hills Shmack Hills, what’s the big deal?” might be a fleeting thought. Trust me, just be patient and give it a little time because the 1.2 million acres of Ponderosa Pine forests and mountains will charm and win you over. You need to pay for a park pass upon entering—$10.00 per vehicle—and the pass is good for all South Dakota parks for seven days from the date of purchase.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Something that makes the Black Hills unique is that the landscape is distinctly different from the high-altitude flat grasslands surrounding it. In fact, it is dubbed “an island in the plains”. The area is geologically old and stable but pockets of upheaval and volcanic activity have given rise to the hills. While they’re not super high in elevation, the centrally located Black Elk Peak does get up to and impressive 7,242 feet. And there are hiking trails and activities galore.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Highway is a National Scenic Byway completed in 1922 that was considered to be an impossible road to construct due to the series of sharp turns and tunnels that needed to be cut through solid rock while maintaining the integrity of the area. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to slow down to take it all in. Winding drives throughout the park are most enjoyable at a slower pace. Allow ample time to travel at a safe speed—generally 25 miles per hour or slower. Expect travel time of about 45 to 60 minutes to enjoy the Needles Highway.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Highway remains open from April through October. Due to the narrowness of the road, the byway is closed during winter months.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Highway is only 14 miles long but there are several great places to stay nearby. Custer State Park is packed with adventure but it’s also a great place to rest and recuperate. There are nine individual campgrounds for tent camping, RV camping, even camping for horses, so you’ll easily find a match for your camping needs. Several of Custer’s camping options come with electric and water hookups to meet all camping needs.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

—John Muir

Black Hills: Step Back in Time to the Wild West

The Wild West comes alive in the Black Hills

Due to changing advisories, please check local travel guidelines before visiting.

An isolated mountain range located in the western edge of South Dakota, the Black Hills is full of scenery, rich history, and tons of family fun. Nestled among the prairies of the upper-Midwest, you’ll find majestic granite spires, pine covered peaks, and unique rock outcroppings.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While discovering off-the-beaten-path treasures, the inherent thread of Wild West history and American Indian culture piques one’s curiosity, fueling the desire to explore even more.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors will find fascinating places to learn about American Indian culture, the Old West, pioneer history, and wildlife. The Crazy Horse Memorial, a mountain sculpture in progress as a tribute to all Native Americans, draws crowds, as does Custer State Park, where visitors often spot bison, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, wild burros, coyotes, wild turkeys, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs.

The Needles in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills area is claimed as sacred ancestral land by nearly two-dozen Native American tribes. A variety of museums and historical sites provide insight into local Native American history and heritage.

The region’s name—the “Black” comes from the dark ponderosa-pine-covered slopes—was conferred by the Lakota (Sioux) who named it Paha Sapa, which means “hills that are black”.

Bison in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lewis and Clark heard tales about the Black Hills from other traders and trappers, but it wasn’t until 1823 that Jedediah Smith and a group of about 15 traders actually traveled through them. While other adventuresome trappers also explored the Hills, most avoided the area because it was considered sacred by the Lakota.

Pronghorns in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They never welcomed the white man to their hunting grounds and as immigration increased there was a marked decline in American Indian-white relations. The Army established outposts nearby, but they seldom entered the Black Hills. Trouble escalated when bands of Lakota began to raid nearby settlements, then retreating to the Hills. In the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, they were assured that the Hills would be theirs for eternity, but the discovery of gold changed that only six years later. 

Burros in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The discovery of gold in the Black Hills brought the first white settlers and miners to the Dakota Territory in 1874. The hunt for riches gave birth to many of the modern day towns located in the area, including the Wild West towns of Deadwood and Keystone.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When miners moved into the area in 1876, they came across a gulch full of dead trees and a creek full of gold—and Deadwood was born. Practically overnight, the tiny gold camp boomed into a town that played by its own rules that attracted outlaws, gamblers, and gunslingers along with the gold seekers. 

The Needles in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The famous and the infamous have called Deadwood and the Black Hills home over the last several centuries. Lewis and Clark, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, George Armstrong Custer, Poker Alice, the Sundance Kid, Calamity Jane, and many others have all passed through here in search of fortune and adventure.

Hiking in the Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Deadwood survived three major fires and numerous economic hardships, pushing it to the verge of becoming another Old West ghost town. But in 1989 limited-wage gambling was legalized and Deadwood was reborn.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An Old West town just a few miles from Mount Rushmore, Keystone is a Black Hills experience like no other. Keystone is one of the few places where you can actually visit an underground gold mine.  Originally named Gold Hill Lode when the mine was first tunneled in 1882, the Big Thunder Gold Mine is a very popular Keystone attraction. The mine offers tours and allows visitors to try their own hand at panning for gold.

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Learn more about the history of this Gold Rush town with a free self-guided walking tour around Keystone. Or, climb on board the 1880s Train for a ride through the Black Hills; the rails take you on a two-hour tour through to Hill City and back.

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Keystone Historical Museum to learn more about the past as well as about one of the town’s famous residents. Carrie Ingalls, sister of Laura Ingalls Wilder and featured in the Little House on the Prairie books, lived and died here.

Worth Pondering…

My first years were spent living just as my forefathers had lived—roaming the green, rolling hills of what are now the states of South Dakota and Nebraska.

—Standing Bear

Into the Hills: Can’t Miss Spots for Your Black Hills Tour

With tourism being South Dakota’s second-largest industry, you can bet there is a lot of sightseeing to do here. The Black Hills, especially, is packed with picturesque, travel hot spots.

We remain optimistic about this year’s RV travel season despite its rough start due to the COVID-19 outbreak. We’re cautiously hoping that as this starts to pass, there’ll be enough cabin-fever to make people want to pack up the RV and head out on a road trip.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the travel season starts up once again which places in the Black Hills are worth a visit or even a revisit?

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No sightseeing tour of the Black Hills is complete without Mount Rushmore. The monument is recommended by nearly everyone, and for good reason. Completed in 1941, Mount Rushmore is a cornerstone in South Dakota tourism. Towering at 5,725 feet with each head being the size of a six-story building, this goliath of a monument is truly a sight to behold.

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to visit this memorial before noon. Mount Rushmore was carved with the intent of viewing it in the morning. Facing the eastern sun the light hits the mountain perfectly in the morning hours.

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Viewing the Shrine of Democracy is only one of the many things you can do while visiting Mount Rushmore. Take your time and hike multiple trails available on the property and visit the sculptor’s studio and museum where you can learn all about the monument.

Iron Mountain Road

Iron Mountain Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While you are going to Mount Rushmore, be sure to take the scenic Iron Mountain Road on the way there. This winding road is full of magnificent Black Hills scenery, pigtail bridges, and gorgeous tunnels that perfectly frame Mount Rushmore as you approach the monument. Constructed in 1933 and designed to do the scenery justice, it’s suggested that you take this road at no more than 20 mph to really take in everything the Black Hills has to offer.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A can’t miss destination on your list should be Custer State Park. The 71,000 acres of the Black Hills offers a home to lots of including a chance to see the famous South Dakotan bison, just be sure to remain in your vehicle or stay back at least 100 yards from them!

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park has a little bit of adventure for everyone, from camping and hiking to fishing and swimming, there isn’t a more picturesque place to visit for a good time.

Needles Highway

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Completed in 1922, this National Scenic Byway was deemed impossible to construct. The roadway was planned out by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck who marked the entire course on foot and horseback. This extreme highway offers 14 miles of sharp turns, narrow tunnels, and granite spires that are sure to leave you in awe.

Crazy Horse Memorial

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Often clumped together with Mount Rushmore, this memorial deserves a place all its own. Sculpted to resemble Tasunke Witco (Crazy Horse) of the Oglala Lakota, this monument is the largest in-progress mountain carving in the world. Much more than just a colossal mountain carving, the Crazy Horse Memorial is home to several museums dedicated to not only the development of the monument but also the diverse histories and cultures of the American Indian people. Additionally, the monument is host to multiple programs and fellowships meant to honor artists, performers, and culture bearers as well as University programs for the next generation of young native people.

Pronghorns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here’s the thing, visit South Dakota once and the place SELLS ITSELF. Much more than just the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, and the Badlands, SoDak is the most scenic places you knew nothing about. Until now!

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You don’t carve the faces of presidents into a mountain unless you’re doing something right.

Worth Pondering…

Great Faces, Great Places. Find your great place.

Round ‘Em Up: The Ground Rumbles & The Dust Flies

Feel the thunder and join the herd at the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Feel the earth tremble as the hooves of more than 1,300 American buffalo pound through the valley in Custer State Park. At the annual Buffalo Roundup in the Black Hills of South Dakota, herdsmen on horseback spur them over the ridge, down the hill and into corrals for sorting.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each fall, the ground rumbles and the dust flies as cowboys, cowgirls, and park crews drive the thundering herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo (number of animals vary depending on rangeland conditions). Up to 20 volunteer cowboys and cowgirls are selected each year through an application process.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clouds of dust and flying turf envelopes the 1-ton animals as they come running by, a mass of horns, hooves, and muscle on the move. You would think such large, lumbering animals would be slow, but they can stop on a dime and easily jump a 5- or 6-foot fence. Your jaw will drop at their speed and agility.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Riding herd on the stampede takes both organization and an understanding of bison intellect. The herd moves easily from prairie grasses to asphalt and into the holding pen. Over the years, there had been numerous runaways trying to turn back.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The big bull bison are not included in the Roundup because they are more aggressive and are simply hard to round up. Because of this, visitors may see them scattered throughout the park during the Roundup weekend.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, it is also part of the park’s management plan to maintain a healthy balance between the number of bison and the available rangeland forage. The park can only sustain a certain number of bison, based on the condition of the grassland and how much food is available.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Buffalo Roundup also allows for some of the animals to be sorted out of the herd. The excess animals are then auctioned off to buyers in November wanting to supplement their herds or start new ones elsewhere in the country.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual roundup, held the last Friday in September, is open to the public. In 2019, the 54th  annual Roundup is scheduled for Friday, September 27.

Wild burros also via for attention © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no admission fee for the event and a park entrance fee is not required the day of the Buffalo Roundup. Parking lots open at 6:15 a.m. (but be prepared to wait in line). Visitors who are in the park by 7:00 a.m. will have plenty of time to get to the viewing areas. The Roundup does not start until 9:30 a.m.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pancakes, sausages, and beverages are available at 6:15 a.m., in both viewing areas. Lunch is served, until 2:00 p.m., at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals.

Pronghorn antelope share the range with the buffal0 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both viewing areas have unique vantage points and visitors get great views from either location. Visitors may not move between viewing areas.

Wild burros also via for attention © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Roundup is generally over by 11:30 a.m., but visitors need to be prepared to stay in the viewing areas until the bison are safely in the corrals. Shuttles are available after the Roundup for visitors wishing to visit the corral area.

Fun activities continue the entire weekend following the Roundup. The Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival, with up to 150 vendors, is held Thursday, Friday, and Saturday near the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center. Saturday features the annual Cabela’s Challenge Dutch Oven Cook-off.

Pronghorn antelope share the range with the buffal0 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re not in the mood to browse or buy and you want to escape the crowds, there’s plenty of daytime wildlife viewing along Wildlife Loop Road and other scenic byways. September is the rut season for the elk and the pronghorn antelope. With the elks’ mating calls and sparring, along with the antelope racing after each other, wildlife watching is quite entertaining.

The spectacle of these animals moving across the plains is a thrill rarely seen elsewhere. So is the silence that shrouded the hills once the beasts are corralled.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once placed in the corrals, park staff sorts out approximately 200 animals to be sold, vaccinates the new members of the herd, brands the new calves, and checks the cows for pregnancy. It takes about four days to work the entire herd.

Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)