4 Wild Dakotas Destinations to Explore this Summer

See what great places are waiting for you on your Dakota road trip

Early experiences in the Dakotas provided valuable inspiration for the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. That inspiration drove his desire to form the National Park Service and you can easily imagine why he took up the cause at several national parks in the Dakotas. 

Three parks are within two hours of each other in South Dakota. The fourth—Theodore Roosevelt National Park—is roughly five hours away in North Dakota. So you can reasonably hit all four on your next RV trip through the Dakotas. 

Here’s your guide to these four parks in the Dakotas, three national parks and one state park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The park named after the 26th President is a great location to start or end your national park road trip in the Dakotas. Because it’s a little separated from the others, hit it on your way to South Dakota or on your way back.

The park is broken into northern and southern units. The southern unit is much more popular and easily accessed off Interstate 94 in the town of Medora. The northern unit is a good option for boondockers and those seeking a more remote experience as it’s about an hour north and closer to Watford City. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A healthy grazing population of bison— the largest land mammal in North America—is a major attraction at Teddy’s park. They tend to graze in roadside meadows and occasionally halt traffic as they cross. 

The park is also home to feral horses, pronghorn, elk, prairie dogs, white-tail and mule deer, and more than 186 types of birds. Whether you just enjoy the 36 Mile Scenic Drive or come for the Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival (September 16-18, 2022), this park offers plenty to do and see. 

Get more tips for visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

If you somehow miss the bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you’ll get another chance to spot one in the Badlands. Along with bison, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn can regularly be spotted from the park’s many roadside overlooks. 

The park’s multi-colored landscape is especially attractive to photographers at sunrise and sunset. But there are many pull-outs along the main park road for you to capture the landscape from a unique perspective. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best times to visit the Badlands are spring and fall. Summer temperatures in the park can be sweltering and winter weather can be quite cold on the Dakota plains. There’s plenty of RV camping in the park but there’s also a large boondocking area for free RV and tent camping just outside the north entrance station. 

Be sure to check out the Fossil Exhibit Trail and the Fossil Preparation Lab. The Badlands has been an epicenter for fossil discovery for decades and there’s a lot to learn about the area’s prehistoric inhabitants from scientists still conducting research at the lab.

Get more tips for visiting Badlands National Park

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Your Dakotas national park trip wouldn’t be complete without seeing Mount Rushmore in person. While the rest of the parks are a testament to nature’s creation, Mount Rushmore offers an ode to human engineering and persistence. 

If it’s your first visit, you can quiz yourself on facts surrounding the four presidents enshrined on the hillside before you step into the information center. Enjoy the short hiking trail from the visitor center along the base of the monument to see the carvings from multiple angles. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you do go inside, there’s a lot to learn about how this miracle of human engineering and construction came to be. From the many hurdles that had to be overcome to the techniques used to create the memorial, the informational exhibits are truly fascinating. 

If you want to pick the brain of a park ranger there are five unique guided tours to choose from. All of these guided programs are free of charge and last anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes. You can also rent a multimedia device to learn the history of Mount Rushmore on a self-guided tour.

Get more tips for visiting Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park

Situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park has miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking, great climbing routes, the beautiful Sylvan Lake which sits beneath granite crags, and wildlife.

The change in topography in this area is one part of what makes Custer so unique. Toward the south of the park there are rolling grasslands that provide a home for over 1,500 bison as well as pronghorns, bighorn sheep, elk, wild burros, wild turkeys, coyotes, and prairie dogs. Toward the north part of the park, the elevation increases dramatically and tall granite spires appear to shoot out of the ground dozens of feet into the air. The sheer sides and steep drops from the spires create a magnificent landscape.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While wildlife can be viewed throughout the park, the Wildlife Loop Road in the southern region of the park is known to have an abundance of animals that can be seen without even leaving your car. During our visit, I observed (and photographed) bison, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, and Custer’s begging burros during our drive along this road.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park offers nine campgrounds in a variety of scenic locations. Nestled in a ponderosa pine forest near French Creek, Blue Bell Campground accommodates large RVs and tents with 31 camping sites. Center Lake Campground is located just above Center Lake with 71 sites shaded by ponderosa pines. This campground can accommodate smaller RVs and tents and all sites are available by same-day reservations. No electricity. Centrally located in the park near the visitor center, Game Lodge Campground offers 59 camping sites with electricity. Legion Lake Campground accommodates large RVs and tents. 26 camping sites with electricity are available.

Get more tips for visiting Custer State Park

Planning a national and state park RV road trip takes a lot of preparation. But if you target these four parks, you can check four amazing parks off your bucket list without a ton of driving in between.

Worth Pondering…

It was here that the romance of my life began.

—Theodore Roosevelt

11 National Park Service Sites I Love

National parks get a lot of attention but there’s so much more to the National Park Service

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Organic Act” creating the National Park Service (NPS), a federal bureau in the Department of the Interior responsible for maintaining national parks and monuments that were then managed by the department. The National Park System has since expanded to 423 units (often referred to as parks) including 63 national parks, more than 150 related areas, and numerous programs that assist in conserving the nation’s natural and cultural heritage for the benefit of current and future generations.

There’s never a bad time to visit America’s amazing national parks, but the decision of which ones to visit can feel overwhelming. To make it easier, I’ve handpicked 11 of my favorite parks that are must-visits. Start planning your next outdoor adventure today!

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota

I wonder if Mount Rushmore was the inspiration for the movie Field of Dreams. I’m sure it’s not, but follow along with me. If building a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield seemed crazy, sculpting a mountain into a national treasure in the middle of the Black Hills of South Dakota must have seemed off-the-charts insane.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But both the baseball field of the movie and the patriotic landmark were works of those people following their passions. And both were great successes. Two million people a year visit Mount Rushmore. Although they come to see patriotism-inspiring 60-foot-tall busts of four presidents carved into granite, they’re also inspired by the natural treasures of the Black Hills.

Was that the plan of the creators of the memorial—“if we build it, they’ll come” to South Dakota and see the Black Hills?

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That was one of their good calls. However, not all of their visions came to fruition. For example, behind Lincoln’s head is the Hall of Records. It was originally envisioned as a massive chamber hundreds of feet into the mountain to hold the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other important documents. They got 70 feet in when cooler heads prevailed, so to speak.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia

Unlike many national parks, Blue Ridge Parkway is a designer park. I mean that the park wasn’t developed based on a specific landmark or feature (e.g. the Grand Canyon or Badlands). The plan was to build a parkway—but the route wasn’t pre-determined. Instead, landscape architects and engineers were given creative freedom and chose and designed a route that plays out like a symphony. Or a musical, or a story! Pick your metaphor of something that’s crafted to change pace, change feeling, and change perspective.

Related Article: From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parkway is 469 miles of views, history, nature, Appalachia, and America. It’s not a highway, designed for speed. It’s a parkway, designed for savoring the journey.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon De Chelly National Monument, Arizona

If you’ve been to a national park site, you may have heard one of the rangers say something like “this is your park, it’s owned by all Americans.” This one is not. This park is owned by the Navajo Nation and is managed cooperatively. A few Navajo families still live, raise livestock, and farm in the park. Travel in many areas is restricted so read the signs and follow the rules.

Yes, you can go on a hike with a ranger, but here, for the most memorable experience, take a canyon tour with a Navajo guide. It’s a truly authentic, welcoming experience you’ll remember forever.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Perched high above the Colorado River, Arches National Park is carved and shaped by weathering and erosion. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. It contains the highest density of natural arches in the world.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 300 million years ago an inland sea covered what is now Arches National Park. The sea evaporated and re-formed 29 times in all leaving behind salt beds thousands of feet thick. Later, sand and boulders carried down by streams from the uplands eventually buried the salt beds beneath thick layers of stone. Because the salt layer is less dense than the overlying blanket of rock, it rises through it, forming it into domes and ridges with valleys in between.

Colonial National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia

Want to go way back in American history? Then you’ll head to some of the first colonies in the New World. The Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia covers Historic Jamestowne (the first permanent English settlement in North America) and Yorktown Battlefield (site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War).

Related Article: America the Beautiful: The National Parks

Fan of battlefields or not, Jamestowne is pretty cool. And, while you’re in the area, you can hit up the rest of the Historic Triangle and visit Colonial Williamsburg, too.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

Right along the U.S.-Mexico border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has the kind of scenery you’d expect when you picture the desert. The monument’s tall, skinny namesake cacti abound in every direction. Take a ride down Ajo Mountain Drive for great views of the “forests” of Saguaro (another species of cactus native to the area).

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Make sure you pack plenty of water and layers. Though temps can get dangerously hot in the daytime, desert temps drop dramatically when the sun goes down, even in the summer. And you’ll definitely want to stick around for the night sky here—the desert climate lends itself to clear evenings. In the winter months, rangers offer stargazing activities with telescopes.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Within striking distance of the famous Bears Ears Buttes, Natural Bridges National Monument is home to stunning, gravity-defying rock formations including Sipapu Bridge, a 31-foot-wide bridge spanning 268 feet. The park was the first-ever Dark Sky Park to be certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the famed stargazing, the area is rich in opportunities to learn more about ancient and modern-day Native American culture. Make sure to take time to hike to the park’s well-preserved petroglyphs. Always be respectful by sticking to the trails and leaving any artifacts you may stumble upon exactly where you found them.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Everyone needs to add Joshua Tree National Park to their travel list. Located in Southern California, this national park has unique landscapes—large boulders, Mojave and Colorado deserts, and Joshua trees and yucca trees. The desert is beautiful with the various cacti and wildflowers scattered through the park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied for several days. Stop by one of the park’s Visitor Centers to hear recommendations on things to do. Some of the popular activities include camping, rock climbing, mountain biking, and stargazing. The pitch-black skies are beautiful in the evenings. Visit the Sky’s The Limit Observatory which is next to the park and observe the stars.

Related Article: What to Expect at the National Parks this Summer 2022

Hiking is the major highlight as there are over two dozen trails from easy to challenging routes. It’s best to hike early in the morning and avoid the summer’s brutal heat. Favorite hiking trails include 49 Palms Oasis (3 miles) and the Lost Palms Oasis (7.5 miles). Both of these trails lead to an oasis of palm trees in the desert. You’ll have an awesome time visiting Joshua Tree National Park.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah and Arizona

Hidden among the curves and canyons of the southwest is an artificial oasis. The man-made Lake Powell offers opportunities to swim, fish, kayak, and boat straight through the desert. Glen Canyon is known for Horseshoe Bend, that perfect blue curve of the Colorado River through Navajo Sandstone canyon walls. The canyon rim is usually crowded with tourists aiming for the perfect Instagram shot but it is indeed worth seeing in person, especially at sunset.

For a road less traveled, drive the Burr Trail from Bullfrog to Boulder, which will take you through unspoiled vistas of Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Check the weather before you hit the trail—flash floods can make the roads impassable and dangerous.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Although Georgia’s Atlantic coastline is only about 100 miles long, the Peach State is home to 30 percent of the barrier islands along the Atlantic Seaboard. And Cumberland is the largest and fairest of them all with the longest expanse of the pristine seashore—18 glorious miles of deserted sand. Truly, this is a bucket-list destination.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The adventure starts on the ferry from St. Mary’s, the only way to get to the island which offers a wonderful view of the diverse habitats. Rent a bike, book a tour with park rangers, or bring a pair of good hiking shoes as the island is a wonderful place to explore. You can spot wild horses roaming freely, raccoons, wild boars, alligators, white-tailed deer, and many birds. Stop by the ruins of Carnegie Dungeness mansion which was built in 1884 by Thomas Carnegie and burned in the 1950s.

Related Article: Get Off the Beaten Path with These Lesser-Known National Parks

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

The American Southwest is full of otherworldly places but White Sands National Park, a massive field of pale dunes in southern New Mexico is about as good as it gets for austere, alien majesty. Wander long enough through the endless hillocks of gypsum crystals and you will start to feel like you’re in an altered state (though hopefully not because you’re dehydrated; be sure to bring lots of water). It’s easy to imagine one of the sandworms from Dune bursting up from below or a UFO from nearby Roswell drifting across the shimmering sky.

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

Independence Day: 12 Must-see Landmarks to Celebrate on 4th of July

Celebrate the natural, industrial, and historic wonders of the US by visiting these iconic sites

So many great places—so little time. 

Skyrocketing gas prices have consumers looking twice at their fuel budget, yet Americans are determined to hit the road. Experts say that fuel costs may actually boost domestic tourism and the 4th of July holiday travel plans. 

Car and RV travel “will set a new record despite historically high gas prices with 42 million people hitting the road” this week for Independence Day vacations, according to AAA. 

The Deloitte summer travel survey reports that 84 percent of American travelers will take an overnight trip, 57 percent will enjoy a road trip and just 15 percent will travel internationally partially due to uncertainty over ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.

Given all of this, here’s a look at 12 fabulous spots across the country with each location in a different state. Taken together, these selections reveal America’s heroic history, industrial achievement, and natural beauty that, woven together, tell the story of America.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon, Arizona

One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World alongside the likes of the Great Barrier Reef and Mount Everest, the spectacular gorge stands alone as perhaps the most iconic symbol of the stunning beauty of the American continent. The Grand Canyon encompasses a 277-mile stretch of the Colorado River, about the distance from Boston to Philadelphia. It is up to 18 miles wide and more than 1 mile deep, standing as the world’s greatest example of the erosive power of water. 

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah Historic District, Georgia

The colonial south lives today amid the verdant squares of Savannah, a nearly 300-year-old city that enjoyed a rebirth following its haunting, captivating portrayal in the 1994 bestselling book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors love Savannah for its charming thoroughfares including the iconic cobblestones of River Street, delicious restaurants highlighting the best of southern fare such as Paula Deen’s flagship eatery The Lady and Sons, its historic squares such as Chippewa Square featured in Forrest Gump, and one of the nation’s biggest and best St. Patrick’s Day bashes.

White Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Washington, New Hampshire

The centerpiece of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains is nothing less than the tallest peak in the northeast (6,288 feet). More famously, Mount Washington habitually witnesses the globe’s most severe weather—due to its elevation and its location at the convergence of several major storm patterns. 

Mount Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Washington’s brutal wind and cold are proclaimed locally as a testament to the hearty nature of Live Free or Die state residents. The summit held the record for the highest wind speed ever recorded (231 mph) for several decades and reached a record low temperate of -50 degrees Fahrenheit in January 1885. The Mount Washington Observatory recorded a wind chill of -103 degrees as recently as 2004. The mountain today is a popular attraction for visitors who ascend the top via hiking trail, precarious auto road, or popular cog railway.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

This geological oddity is an American wonder for its natural beauty and sobering role in the history of modern warfare. White Sands National Park includes 275 square miles of glistening gypsum sand—the largest dune field of its kind on Earth surrounded by the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It was on this site in July 1945 that American scientists, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, first unleashed the power of the atomic bomb, a victory of American ingenuity and industrial power amid World War II. The achievement also had lingering ramifications for mankind. The Trinity test at White Sands was a prelude to the atomic attacks the following month on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan that ended World War II. The park today offers spectacular vistas and touring by automobile, hiking, biking, or pack animals.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

The rugged and wild parkland is celebrated for its aptly named badlands, free-roaming bison, and its namesake’s Elkhorn Ranch on the Little Missouri River. 

The park recently had one of its busiest years ever attracting 800,000 visitors in 2021. Stargazing is a popular activity in the isolated park hundreds of miles from the nearest major city with weekly events and viewing parties highlighted by the annual Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival. Typically held on Labor Day weekend, date of the 2022 event is still pending. 

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

The stunning human cost of preserving the nation is best seen in this sprawling battlefield in rural south-central Pennsylvania. Gettysburg pitted about 160,000 men in a pitched three-day battle that turned the tide of the Civil War in favor of the Union. Some 50,000 soldiers from both sides were killed or wounded. It remains the largest battle in North American history. 

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors today can stand where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain ordered the 20th Maine to fix bayonets and charge down Little Round Top to save the southern end of the Union line, walk in the footsteps of brave Confederates slaughtered during Pickett’s charge on the decisive day of battle, or tour the vast battlefield by car exploring the hundreds of haunting monuments that dot the landscape today. 

The Breakers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newport Mansions, Rhode Island

The wealth of the Gilded Age springs to life in Newport where the nation’s titans of 19th-century industry built ostentatious summer homes on the cliffs where scenic Narragansett Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. 

International Tennis Hall of Fame © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Breakers, owned by railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt II, is probably the most spectacular built of limestone in the ornate style of an Italian palazzo. Newport’s legacy as a playground of the wealthy lives on today around its charming and busy New England downtown waterfront. The city is home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and hosted America’s Cup, the world’s premier sailing race, for decades. 

Magnolia Plantation © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Charleston plantations and gardens, South Carolina 

The antebellum South, both its beauty and the disturbing legacy of human bondage, live on today, and its vast collection of some 2,000 plantations many of which are centered around historic Charleston and open to visitors. 

Middleton Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Magnolia Plantation & Gardens features what it calls “America’s last large-scale Romantic-style garden” while offering 45-minute tours of its slave cabins. Middleton Place, named for Declaration of Independence signatory Arthur Middleton, claims “America’s oldest landscaped garden” across 65 acres. Boone Hall dates back to 1681 and is famed for its Avenue of the Oaks with its moss-covered limbs forming a photogenic canopy along with an array of brick homes that housed slave families. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial , South Dakota

This monumental sculpture of four U.S. presidents, each of their faces 60 feet tall, turned a remote area of a remote state into a beloved symbol of the national narrative. Law school student William Andrew Burkett summed up the purpose of the monument in 1934 in a winning essay he submitted to a contest hosted by Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum. 

Mount Rushmore attracts some 2 million visitors a year. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Almighty God, from this pulpit of stone the American people render thanksgiving and praise for the new era of civilization brought forth upon this continent,” Burkett wrote, his essay immortalized in bronze at the park. Mount Rushmore attracts some 2 million visitors a year and is a prominent place in the nation’s cultural lexicon with its images of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln staring stoically across the American continent.  

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Utah

The spectacular images of eroded sandstone buttes rising from the red rock of the Colorado Plateau, hard by the Arizona border, are firmly ingrained in America’s natural and cultural landscapes. Monument Valley was forged by tectonic forces some 250 million years ago. It was inhabited by Navajo for centuries who set aside the land as a park within the Navajo Nation in 1958. 

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Its stunning landscape has reached audiences around the world as the backdrop of classic western movies such as Stagecoach, the 1939 John Ford flick that made John Wayne a star. More recently, its jagged cathedrals of stone framed war hero and shrimp tycoon Forrest Gump as he abruptly ended his famous silver-screen jog across America on U.S. Route 163 near Mexican Hat, Utah.

Lake Champlain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Champlain, Vermont

The “Sixth Great Lake” sits on the border of New York and is best explored from the quintessential New England college town of Burlington. It has loomed large in both Native and European American history. Lake Champlain divided the Mohawks to the west and Abenaki to the east while British and continental forces fought for control of the 107-mile-long lake throughout the American Revolution. 

Lake Champlain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Champlain today is a perfect location to enjoy the pristine wilderness and especially the autumn foliage of northern New England, or search for Champy. The mysterious Loch Ness monster-like creature was first known to the Abenaki, allegedly witnessed by French explorer Samuel de Champlain himself, and reported by dozens of other witnesses in the centuries since. 

New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

America’s newest national park has long been a symbol of an Appalachian Mountain state so beautiful it’s known around the world as “almost heaven.” New River Gorge achieved its federal designation in December 2020. The park is celebrated most notably for its spectacular New River Gorge Bridge. It was both the world’s highest auto bridge and longest single-span arch bridge when it opened in 1977 though it has been surpassed in both global superlatives since. 

The park offers many recreational opportunities, along with insight and exhibits exploring West Virginia’s coal mining history and culture.

Worth Pondering…

Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.

—Albert Einstein

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.

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.

Iron Mountain Road Features Rugged Terrain and Magnificent Scenery

Forget the thousand-mile long road trips that crisscross the country—we have a great 17-mile one for you

What seems like a long bike ride is actually one of the most picturesque portions of pavement in the country and it’s surrounded by fun things to do. Read on to learn about this short but fascinating stretch of road that is the Iron Mountain Road, including stops and where to stay. 

The Route 

Officially known as US Route 16A the Iron Mountain Road twists and turns through a portion of Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Iron Mountain Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quick Facts about Iron Mountain Road 

  • 17 miles long
  • 314 unique curves and turns
  • 14 switchbacks
  • 3 tunnels
  • 3 pigtail bridges 
  • Only route that allows free passage through Custer State Park

Custer State Park

Iron Mountain Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Named for the infamous George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer State Park has 17,000 acres of natural beauty and adventure. There are several ways to explore the dozens of miles of trail in the park but hiking and biking are the most popular. If your feet are tired you can go on the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour, the Hayride and Chuck Wagon Cookout, take a guided tour on horseback, or rent a kayak or canoe to explore the park by water.

Black Elk Wilderness

Iron Mountain Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re into camping, backpacking, wildlife, or big adventure, Black Elk Wilderness is the place for you. The area is named for the Oglala Sioux spiritual leader Black Elk and is sacred to many American Indians. The Wilderness area spans over 13,426 acres of rolling black hills, trails, and wildlife.

Iron Mountain Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s also home to the 7,242-foot Black Elk Peak (formerly called Harney Peak) where you can see four different states from the summit. Black Elk has a unique ecosystem of rocky slopes and classic cragged peaks where you can spot mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and elk or you can toss your line in the water for the aquatic wildlife.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Mount Rushmore National Memorial is the crown-jewel of an Iron Mountain Road trip. Located in Keystone, Mount Rushmore was completed in 1941 and has hosted millions of visitors since. It took sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his aptly-named son Lincoln around 14 years to carve the 60-foot heads of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can spend hours walking around the main plaza and gazing up at the likenesses of the presidents but there’s more to do than sit and stare. The best place to start is Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center (which is temporarily closed through the rest of 2019) to see exhibits and watch a 14-minute movie that discusses the planning and execution of the monument.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After the Center you can stroll down Presidential Trail for a quick snapshot of the area. If you have a half to full day you should book yourself into a ranger-guided tour. If you’re more comfortable with your own pace you can also try an audio tour with facts about the area and carving Rushmore.

Where to Stay Near Iron Mountain Road

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iron Mountain Road is only 17 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.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s difficult to go wrong when you stay directly on the back step of nearby action at Custer State Park.

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

South Dakota: Fly Over State? Not a Chance!

South Dakota gets a bad rap as a flyover state

An often overlooked travel destination, South Dakota is a land of breathtaking scenic beauty.

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lewis and Clark passed through, Crazy Horse fought for freedom, and an 1876 gold rush in the Lakota-owned Black Hills created a miner’s camp known as Deadwood that lured frontiers’ woman Calamity Jane and gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After a rather long, prairie-flat preamble in the east, western South Dakota abruptly changes into two beautiful but distinct landscapes, the striated, fossil-rich sedimentary buttes of the Badlands and the nearby mountains so thick in evergreens that the native Lakota called them paha sapa—hills that are black.

Ironically, the defining feature of Western South Dakota’s breathtaking nature is that it is indefinable. Exceptionally varied, yet incredibly geographically close, you’ll witness the diversity of the natural world while also experiencing how the landscape can change over time.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start in Badlands National Park which is truly a natural anomaly. This rather off-putting nickname was first coined by the Lakota people, who called it “mako sica” (“land bad’), due to its extremity of temperatures, mixed prairie, and the exposed rugged and eroded sedimentary rock.

Badlands Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Badlands Scenic Byway drops immediately beside the parks serrated sandstone spires, which are banded in layers of purple, red, and orange rock that indicate their age. It is these very characteristics, however, that make it an ideal location for captivating vistas and off-beat serene beauty.  

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A must-see road trip destination, Mount Rushmore is visited by 3 million people a year.

The construction in its entirety took over 400 workers more than 14 years to sculpt, and will forever remain a testament to American patriotism. There is something rather overwhelming about it, as if it is a giant projection of a proud past on the rugged landscape of the indelible natural land.

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another powerful and impressive monument in the works, yet open to visitation is the Crazy Horse Memorial, a depiction of the fascinating Oglala Lakota warrior. The privately-funded project began construction in 1948, yet is still quite far from completion. Once completed, however, the statue, carved out of Thunderhead Mountain, will be the world’s largest sculpture at 641 feet wide and 563 feet tall. Witness history in the making by adding this stop to your itinerary!

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakota is also about those quirky roadside attractions. A necessary pit stop is Wall Drug in the town of Wall (the gateway to The Badlands), an establishment that embraces its quirkiness and welcomes 15,000 to 20,000 tourists a day. A stop at Wall Drug may include a cup of five cent coffee, a buffalo sandwich in a restaurant that can seat 520 tourists at a time, homemade pumpkin praline fudge, and a traveler’s chapel.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here corniness is key and despite your best efforts, you will more than likely leave with a Wall Drug tee shirt. Don’t say, I didn’t warn you.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And to the east along I-90, the famous Corn Palace in Mitchell which as the name might imply is AN ENTIRE ARENA MADE OF CORN!

The corny Willie Nelson at the Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Life really is the journey and these words cannot reach higher truth than referring to South Dakota. Driving through Custer State Park, you will see nearly 1,300 buffalo roaming alongside burros, prairie dog, and pronghorn antelopes.

Needles Highway, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, if you ever want to feel confounded by Mother Nature’s capabilities, Needles Highway is the drive for you with fourteen miles of steep turns, stunning vistas, and granite spires.

Buffalo Roundup, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic highways make the journey just as spectacular as the destination. Fly over state? Not a chance!

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)

American History Alive In Stone: Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Majestic figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota, tell the story of the birth, growth, development, and preservation of America

“If you build it, he will come.” That oft-quoted line from the film Field of Dreams has equal resonance as the motivating force behind the formation of America’s Shrine to Democracy—the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, 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.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mount Rushmore symbolizes the ideals of freedom, democracy, and the American dream in the four 60-foot granite faces. This mountain carving of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln draws over two million visitors a year (2,431,231 in 2016). It is both a spectacular site and a man-made wonder.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The first blast on the mountain occurred in 1927. Under the direction of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, 400 men and women worked through hot summers and cold winters to create the 60-foot faces, nearly 500 feet up the side of the mountain.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Over 90 percent of the mountain was carved using dynamite. The fine details of the faces were achieved, using jackhammers and hand chisels. Operators hung from the top of the mountain in bosun chairs held by steel cables. Despite the dangerous work, in the 14 years it took to carve the mountain, not a single person died. The memorial was officially declared complete on October 31, 1941.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is open year-round, seven days a week and is located 23 miles from Rapid City. The memorial offers a variety of activities so plan to spend at least four to five hours there. Visitors can leave and return to the memorial the same day for the evening lighting ceremony. Mount Rushmore also features a gift shop, information center, and an award-winning audio tour. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Begin at the information center where staff and displays will help you plan your visit to the memorial and the Black Hills region. From here, go up on the walkway toward the sculpture and other facilities. The Lincoln Borgham Visitor Center has exhibits on the carving of Mount Rushmore, a 14-minute film, “Mount Rushmore—The Shrine,” an information desk, restrooms, and a bookstore. The Sculpture’s Studio displays models and tools used in the carving process.

The Presidential Trail is a half-mile loop that provides various views of the iconic Mount Rushmore National Memorial that can’t be missed. This easy trail meanders through the pines and near the blasting rubble left from workers carved the mountain decades ago. Along the trail, each president is highlighted with history provided by plaques found along the way.

Follow the crowds, and you’ll end up at the Grand View Terrace, just beyond the Avenue of the Flags. True, the head-on views are spectacular and unobstructed. But you can do better. Walk the often-bypassed loop around the base of the mountain. Climbing up the steps though ponderosa pines, you can get a closer view of the faces at various twists and turns (and maybe catch a glimpse of a Rocky Mountain goat or a mule deer, too).

Just outside Mount Rushmore, the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway offers stunning views of the Presidential faces framed by the local landscape.

Heading southeast from the memorial, follow Highway 16A, a twisting route down Iron Mountain Road. You’ll find tunnels that were specifically carved to frame the faces, yet predate the monument itself. They knew the mountain was going to be carved, so they constructed the tunnels to show off the faces before they were ever there.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Keystone is the closest city in the Black Hills to Mount Rushmore, which is located only three miles away. Rich in gold mining history, the quaint town of Keystone was once a boomtown after the discovery of placer gold two miles east of its current location. Placer gold is still thought to exist in abundance but the great depth of the deposits makes it difficult and impractical to reach.

Worth Pondering…

The noble countenances emerge from Rushmore, as though the spirit of the mountain heard a human plan and itself became a human countenance.

—Frank Lloyd Wright