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

The Ultimate Guide to Custer State Park

With spectacular towering rock spires, gorgeous lakes, scenic drives, and abundant wildlife, Custer State Park is a world of beautiful nature

Encompassing 71,000 acres in the Black Hills, Custer State Park is home to plentiful wildlife and adventure; camping, hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, or relaxing, there’s something here for everyone.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over 2 million people from around the world visit Custer State Park every year and it’s easy to see why. With its combination of rolling hills, stunning granite peaks, and abundant wildlife, Custer is a uniquely beautiful location. The park itself can be seen and enjoyed in two to three days but I suggest a longer stay to enjoy the area around the park and all it has to offer.  If you are planning a trip to South Dakota or want to be inspired, read on to find out all you need to know about this beautiful and unique destination.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History of Custer State Park

Custer State Park was born in 1919. Governor Peter Norbeck had long admired the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota and once elected governor of the state, he set out to permanently preserve the area. Once the park was created, Norbeck himself helped to plan the layout of roads and scenic vistas throughout the park. The twisty turns and narrow granite tunnels of the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road are designed to offer breathtaking views while blending with the scenery they traverse.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When asked about the routes he had planned throughout the park, Norbeck famously said “You’re not supposed to drive here at 60 miles per hour; to do the scenery justice you should drive at no more than 20. To do it full justice you should just get out and walk it.”

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the summer of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge spent three months visiting the Black Hills and Custer State Park in particular. He and Mrs. Coolidge stayed primarily at the State Game Lodge during this time, earning it the nickname the “Summer White House.”

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

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was responsible for many of the projects we currently enjoy in the park. From 1933 to 1941 they built the dams, bridges, and buildings that makeup Stockade Lake, Center Lake, Wildlife Station Visitor Center, the Mount Coolidge Lookout Tower, and most notably the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Location of Custer State Park

Located in southwestern South Dakota, Custer State Park is a 30-minute drive from Rapid City, South Dakota. The drive south from Rapid City on Highway 79 is an easy and pleasant one offering impressive views of the Black Hills. Turn right onto Highway 36 and the main entrance to the park. Once you enter the park gates, the highway name changes to Highway 16A which can be a little confusing. Turning right onto Highway 16A takes you north on Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore National Monument while continuing straight on Highway 16A takes you west on the park’s main road.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two of the Park’s lodges (State Game Lodge and Legion Lake Lodge) and three of its campgrounds (Game Lodge Campground, Grace Coolidge Campground, and Legion Lake Campground) are located along this route. Turning south just past Legion Lake, one encounters Highway 87 which takes you to the Blue Bell Lodge and campground and Custer’s famed Wildlife Loop Road.

The area immediately surrounding the park is a tourist playground with scenic drives, national monuments (Mount Rushmore), and private attractions such as the Crazy Horse Monument. The town of Custer is located just outside the west entrance to the park and is convenient for restocking on fuel and groceries or for grabbing a bite to eat.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Geography of Custer State Park

Granite spires, stunning mountain views, and rolling grasslands all combine in this very special and scenic location. Located in Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park encompasses approximately 71,000 acres of land.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 pronghorn antelope, elk, wild burros, 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

Woven throughout this landscape are several streams and lakes that further add to the beauty and ambience of the area. Taken together, Custer State Park offers a unique landscape that creates a stunning palette of colors, shapes, and textures that many consider to be unparalleled in its scenic beauty.

Related Article: Custer State Park: A Black Hills Gem

Bison along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife in Custer

Wildlife in Custer is abundant and includes bison, deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, coyotes, burros, and prairie dogs. 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 the road.

Burros along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The begging burros (as they are known) have inhabited the grasslands of Custer for nearly a century. Originally, these donkeys were used as pack animals to shuttle visitors between Sylvan Lake Lodge and Black Elk Peak (the highest peak east of the Rockies). When their services were no longer needed these animals were released into the wild to roam freely in the park.

Begging burros along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The begging burros are extremely friendly and easily approachable. They’ve even been known to poke their heads into the windows of passing cars that stop long enough on the side of the road. Although park officials don’t recommend it, visitors enjoy feeding the burros that are eager to accept almost any handout that is offered.

Pronghorns along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The big wildlife draw in Custer is their herd of over 1,500 wild bison. The herd roams freely in the grasslands in the southern part of the park and has thrived in this area. Visitors on the Wildlife Loop Road are almost guaranteed to see bison during their drive. And it’s not uncommon to be caught in a “buffalo jam.”

Bison along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This unique experience occurs when the bison herd stops on the roadway or crosses the roadway in the park. Don’t be surprised to find a car or truck surrounded by bison almost like a metal island in a sea of brown hides and horns. While not tame, the bison are also not easily intimidated by people or automobiles. This is truly a unique experience that would be hard to duplicate anywhere in the world outside of Custer State Park.

Related Article: Explore the Black Hills

How to explore Custer State Park

Scenic drives

Almost every road in Custer can be considered a scenic drive! But, there are three that stand out above the others.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway 

The Needles Highway (also known as Highway 87) is a beautiful drive that runs from Highway 16A in the park up to the northwest corner of Custer where Sylvan Lake is located. This 14-mile road is part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway and was once thought to be impossible to build by many engineers. However, through hard work and dedication, it was completed in 1922. This spectacular drive twists and turns its way through forests of pine and spruce, across sunny meadows, and up rugged mountains.

Needles Eye Tunnel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The highway’s name is derived from the rugged granite spires (tall granite towers) that rise majestically into the air. The road terminates at Sylvan Lake after passing through Needles Eye Tunnel, a one-lane tunnel carved into a mountain of granite that measures only 8 feet 4 inches wide by 11 feet 3 inches tall. With the many twists, turns, and narrow tunnels, this highway is definitely not RV-friendly so leave the rig at the campsite while enjoying this drive. Expect a 45-minute drive one-way from end to end.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iron Mountain Road

Iron Mountain Road is the portion of Highway 16A that travels north after one enters the park from the east on Highway 36. This 17-mile stretch of highway is yet another example of determination and ingenuity. The road was specifically designed with 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, and three one-lane tunnels to force visitors to go slow in the hopes that they would enjoy and take in the scenery during their drive.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The southern portion of the road begins in Custer then leaves the park after a few miles and ends at Mount Rushmore National Monument. Along the way, visitors are treated to the scenic beauty of the Black Hills including many overlooks and beautiful pine forests. On your journey toward Mount Rushmore, you will cross over wooden “pigtail” bridges (bridges that loop over their road as they climb). As you near the end, be on the lookout for Doane Robinson Tunnel. This tunnel carved through the mountain is 13 feet 2 inches wide and 12 feet 2 inches tall and was designed to perfectly frame Mount Rushmore while you’re heading north. It is quite an impressive sight. This beautiful drive is not an RV-friendly stretch of highway so once again you’ll want to leave your rig parked while exploring this road. Expect a 60-minute drive one way along this route.

Along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife Loop Road

As mentioned before, this 18-mile scenic loop travels through the south end of the park and winds through open grassy meadows and hills dotted with pine and crosses clear flowing streams. Depending on the day, you can see pronghorn antelope, deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, and the begging burros on your drive. But, perhaps the most well-known feature of the drive is Custer’s bison herd. At over 1,500 animals strong, this herd roams the grasslands in the park’s southern end and can almost always be seen from the road. We have seen and experienced cars completely surrounded by bison and it makes for an extremely unique experience. Depending on “buffalo jams,” and whether you stop to feed the burros, we recommend planning around 1 hour to 1½ hours for this drive.

Related Article: The Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

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

Hiking

The park offers many hiking opportunities that allow visitors to get off the beaten path and explore the park in an up close and personal way. In addition to the designed and marked trails, off-trail hiking also is encouraged in Custer and visitors are allowed to hike wherever they would like. Depending on the area of the park in which you hike, the trails differ greatly in their topography and geography.

Camping in Custer State Park

Camping in Custer

Custer features 10 campgrounds, each with a unique feel, throughout the park:

  • Blue Bell Campground
  • Center Lake Campground
  • French Creek Horse Camp
  • French Creek Natural Area
  • Game Lodge Campground
  • Grace Coolidge Campground
  • Legion Lake Campground
  • Stockade North Campground
  • Stockade South Campground
  • Sylvan Lake Campground

Most campgrounds offer electric sites with water available at various locations throughout the campground. The lone dump station in the park is located at Game Lodge Campground. 

Other activities

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake is a beautiful body of water located in the northwest corner of Custer State Park. It can be accessed via the Needles Highway if you’re in the Park or by Highway 87 from the north. The Sylvan Lake area offers many activities to visitors; you can rent canoes or kayaks or try your hand at fishing for the trout, panfish, and bass found in its waters.

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The loop trail that goes around the lake is 1.1 miles in length, mostly flat and comprised of packed gravel making it a relatively easy hike for most individuals. The views from the trail can be stunning as it traverses the shoreline and there are several large boulders along the way that kids and adults alike will enjoy scrambling to the top of in order to enjoy the breathtaking views from that vantage point. There is even a small swimming beach at the lake for those that are interested in cooling off on a hot summer day.

Related Article: Needles Highway: National Scenic Byway in the Black Hills

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The nearby Sylvan Lake Lodge offers visitors a chance to grab lunch in the restaurant or stock up on drinks, snacks, and souvenirs while they are there. Due to the many activities and its scenic beauty, Sylvan Lake is quite popular and parking can be somewhat limited. So, we suggest arriving at the lake early in the day when crowds are somewhat minimized.

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

Custer State Park is home to a number of other activities as well. The streams in Custer are teaming with trout waiting to be caught. The trails and roads in Custer are perfect for biking and walking. Eagles and other birds fill the skies and are waiting to be seen by all those who are interested. And the lakes in the park are waiting for you to take a cool refreshing dip.

Truly Custer is a magnificent destination unlike any other we have experienced!

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they roundup and drive the herd of approximately 1,500 buffalo. Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Buffalo Roundup begins at 9:30 a.m. with the parking lots opening at 6:15 a.m. Guests must stay in the viewing areas until the herd is safely in the corrals, generally around noon. Breakfast is available at 6:15 a.m. in both viewing areas. Lunch is served at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals. 

Related Article: South Dakota: Fly Over State? Not a Chance!

Testing, branding, and sorting of the buffalo begins at 1 p.m. and lasts until approximately 3 p.m.

At the Annual Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival, up to 150 vendors offer their fine arts and crafts for sale including many South Dakota made products.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start your morning with a pancake feed and enjoy on-going Western and Native American entertainment under the big top. All events and vendors will be located on the festival grounds across from the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center.

The annual roundup, held the last Friday in September, is open to the public. In 2022, the 57th annual Roundup is scheduled for Friday, September 30.

Details

Park Size: 71,000 acres

Camping at Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping: 10 campgrounds with 341 campsites and 50 camping cabins, horse camp

Park entrance fees: $20 per vehicle (valid for 7 days); $36 for annual pass; vehicles traveling non-stop through the park on US Highway 16A do not need an entrance license

Operating hours: Open year-round (between October 1 and April 30, showers, flush toilets, and other water systems may be closed; vault toilets usually remain open)

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearest towns: Custer, Rapid City, Hill City, Keystone

Note: GPS can be unreliable in the area

Read Next: Doorway to Forever: Badlands National Park

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)

Doorway to Forever: Badlands National Park

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands

Badlands National Park doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! For centuries humans have viewed South Dakota’s celebrated Badlands with a mix of dread and fascination. But these 244,000 acres of the otherworldly landscape are gorgeous with deep canyons, towering pinnacles and spires, buttes, and banded red-and-gray rock formations.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the National Park Service, Badlands National Park was named by the Lakota people who called it “mako sica,” meaning “land bad” for its extreme weather, lack of water, and rugged exposed landscape. French-Canadian fur trappers seconded that notion dubbing it les mauvais terres pour traverse, or “bad lands to travel through.” The term “Badlands” also has a geologic definition referring to sedimentary rock that is extensively eroded over time by wind and lack of water. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock layers that stacked up over about 75 million years began eroding a half-million years ago, sculpted into channels and canyons by the Cheyenne and White rivers. Sod-covered buttes represent the Ice Age-era prairie where ancient hunters left behind bison bones and arrowheads up to 12,000 years old.

Paleontologists continue to sift through the striated rocks for ancient seashells, ancestors to the modern horse, and 50-foot-long marine mammals known as mosasaurs.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Human history in the Badlands goes back roughly 12,000 years beginning with ancient hunter-gatherers. Later, the Native American Lakota people followed migrating buffalo to the area for seasonal hunting.

Just shy of a million visitors come to Badlands National Park annually, most of those in June, July, and August when the weather is quite hot (highs average above 90 degrees) and prone to thunderstorms. But visitor numbers dip by half in September when the weather moderates and even more in cooler May.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Migrating birds are another reason to visit in spring or fall. In spring, you’re also more likely to see prairie animals such as bison with their young and in fall the golden color of turning leaves fill the canyons and ravines. During the cold and biting winter months, wind whips across the largely treeless landscape.

While breathtaking at a distance, the Badlands are geologically fascinating up close, best explored by hiking. They introduce the rock formations, canyons, ledges, cliffs, and passes interspersed with prairie grasslands. Its eight official hiking trails all in the North Unit are not extensive— the longest, the moderate Castle Trail in the park’s northeast is 10 miles round trip. A few trails are strenuous but most are moderate and some are short including the quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail. The park’s Open Hike Policy means visitors may go off-trail.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come prepared with ample supplies of water. This is especially important if you go hiking; the Park Service recommends two quarts per person for every two hours of hiking. Also bring your own snacks, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat (we recommend a Tilley), and sunglasses.

Even if you go hiking, you’ll also want to take a drive or two in the park to take in its full scope. The 40-mile Badlands Loop Road connects the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall. This scenic route winds up and down the contours of the Badlands with about a dozen opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts for photo ops.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is nothing more iconic in this park than the badland formations that inspired its protection, and there is no better place to take in its supernatural views than on Badlands Loop Road. Also known as South Dakota Highway 240, this 31-mile loop scenic byway travels through the eastern side of the park between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall, through prairie grasslands and ancient geologic formations with stops along the way at nearly 30 lookout points. One not-to-miss feature—you probably couldn’t miss it if you tried—is what is called “The Wall,” 60-mile long, many miles-wide escarpments of pinnacles, buttes, fins, and mounds that separate the upper and lower prairies.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the closest experience to nature, try camping. In addition to backcountry camping, Badlands offers two campgrounds. The primitive, first-come-first-served Sage Creek Campground in the park’s northwest has 22 sites (free), vault toilets, picnic benches, and bison trails. For running water and electricity opt for the Cedar Pass Campground adjacent to Cedar Pass Lodge where you’ll find RV and tent camping sites with shaded picnic tables. The lodge also rents 26 pine-paneled cabins with deck chairs perfect for gazing at the night sky.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Pass Lodge operates the park’s only restaurant specializing in Sioux Indian Tacos featuring fry bread topped with refried beans, buffalo meat, and cheese. For other dining options, you’ll need to either bring picnic food or leave the park and head to Wall Drug where ice water is still free.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 244,300 acres

Date Established: November 10, 1978 (established as a National Monument: January 29, 1939)

Location: Southwest South Dakota, 63 miles from Rapid City

Park Elevation: 2,460 feet-3,282 feet

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: Badlands National Park was named by the Lakota people who called it “mako sica,” meaning “land bad,” for its extreme weather, lack of water, and rugged exposed landscape. French-Canadian fur trappers seconded that notion dubbing it les mauvais terres pour traverse, or “bad lands to travel through.” The term “Badlands” also has a geologic definition, referring to sedimentary rock that is extensively eroded over time by wind and lack of water. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: There is nothing more iconic in this park than the badland formations that inspired its protection, and there is no better place to take in its supernatural views than on Badlands Loop Road. Also known as South Dakota Highway 240, this 31-mile loop scenic byway travels through the eastern side of the park between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall, through prairie grasslands and ancient geologic formations with stops along the way at nearly 30 lookout points.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2020 Recreation Visits: 916,932

Worth Pondering…

The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.

—Teddy Roosevelt

10 Amazing Places to RV in July

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in July

According to a recent survey, 31 percent of U.S. leisure travelers—56 million people—are planning on taking an RV vacation this summer with 65 million planning an RV trip within the year. Unlike the summer of 2020, the pandemic is not the primary reason for the rise in RV camping. The survey shows that remote work, family travel, and exploring America are the top reasons for the continued popularity of RVing this summer.

If you’re looking for a destination worthy of your July vacation days consider places with generally good weather this month and several events booked on the calendar. These destinations come alive for your July RV travels.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out our monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in April, May, and June. Also, check out our recommendations from July 2019.

Grand Canyon, South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon North Rim

Make this the summer you visit the other side of the Big Ditch. The North Rim reopened on May 15 for its summer season. This isn’t your typical high country getaway. The North Rim is defined not just by elevation but by isolation. This is an alpine outback of sun-bathed forests of ponderosa pines, blue spruce, Douglas firs, and aspens interrupted by lush meadows and wildflowers.

If you’ve only visited the South Rim you may be surprised by the lack of crowds at the North Rim. A quiet serenity is normal on this side of the trench. It rises 1,000 feet higher than its southern counterpart and you’ll likely see more elk and deer than tour groups. There are no helicopter rides, no shuttle buses, and no bustling village. Of the millions of people who visit Grand Canyon National Park each year less than 10 percent make it to the North Rim.

Even the journey is part of the adventure. State Route 67 from Jacob Lake to the park entrance is a National Scenic Byway as it traverses a stunning mix of broad forests and lush meadows. During your visit enjoy hiking trails, scenic drives, and forested solitude.

Needles Highway, Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakota

South Dakota is one of America’s most beautiful states. It’s also one of its most misunderstood. But once you’re here, you’ll discover why all those Hogs keep coming back to Sturgis every summer. Take a drive along the Needles Highway through fascinating rock formations or drive literally any stretch of the Badlands to see scenery like nowhere else in the world. Custer State Park is one of the few places in America where a buffalo on the road can cause a traffic jam; the annual Buffalo Roundup (September 24, 2021) takes place here when thousands thunder through the park as rangers round them up for medical checks and counts. And not to be forgotten is Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Corn Palace, Mitchell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakotas’s roadside attractions are also among the quirkiest in America. Take I-90 East from the Black Hills and you’ll pass ghost towns, a dinosaur sculpture park, the famous Wall Drug, and the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell. You’ll end up in Sioux Falls, one of those small cities that feel a hell of a lot bigger than it is and a great place to spend some time.

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Since the city’s founding in 1610, the Santa Fe Plaza has been its cultural hub hosting bullfights and fandangos. Today, surrounded by historic buildings like the San Miguel Mission and the Palace of the Governors, the plaza continues to be the epicenter of Santa Fe affairs from live music to September’s Santa Fe Fiesta. For a little living culture, support the local commerce at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.

Santa Fe’s museums delve into art, history, and culture. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum contains the largest collection of her art in the world. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture tells of the achievements of the diverse Native peoples of the Southwest. Santa Fe is a shopper’s paradise, whether browsing or buying art, antiques, or collectibles. Galleries feature pottery, paintings, jewelry, and Native American creations. Canyon Road, the epicenter of Santa Fe’s artistic culture, is the first and last stop for many visitors.

La Fonda on the Plaza © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

July weather with temperatures in the mid-80s makes this month an ideal time to enjoy the outdoors. A variety of hiking trails include the Dale Ball Trails which cover nearly 25 miles in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Biking, fishing, boating, and golf are other ways to enjoy the fresh mountain air.

Opening in July, Bishop’s Lodge Auberge Resorts Collection features trout fishing, alfresco art classes, horse stables, and trail rides on its 317 secluded acres.

Horse farm in Bluegrass Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lexington, Kentucky

There are many reasons to include Lexington in your July travel plans. The second-largest city in Kentucky, Lexington is known as the “Horse Capital of the World.” For starters, the folks at visitLEX.com have created country/bluegrass, hip-hop/R&B, and rock playlists for you to listen to as you explore the city and beyond.

If you’ve never toured a horse farm, this is the month to do it and Lexington is the place. Explore Horse Country by touring the homes of champions, seeing new foals frolic in their pastures, and learning about the care of Kentucky’s signature athletes. There are more than 400 horse farms in the area with over 25 offer tours (by reservation). 

Keeeneland © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or take the self-guided tour of Keeneland Racecourse’s historic grounds. A historic racecourse Keeneland is the world’s largest and most prominent Thoroughbred auction house. Morning Work tours and Backstretch tours are also available by reservation. Because of concerns surrounding COVID, Keeneland continues to limit the number of guests in each tour.

Trot over to the Kentucky Horse Park for an enjoyable, educational experience for horse fans of all ages and disciplines. Take in a show, wander the grounds to visit horses in the barns, and be sure to stop in at the International Museum of the Horse which catalogs the history of the Thoroughbred industry.

Lassen Peak, Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

California’s paramount landscape of fire and ice, Lassen Volcanic National Park, opened for summertime activities in late June. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads opened for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with patches of snow.

Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park ranges in elevations from 5,300 feet to over 10,000 feet at the top of Lassen Peak. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that are set amid forests, lakes, and streams. In Lassen you’ll find not one but four different types of volcanoes: shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite. 

Heritage Driving Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heritage Driving Tour, Indiana

The 90-mile Heritage Trail Driving Tour winds through Amish Country taking you down rural highways, country lanes, and charming main streets. In Goshen, the Old Bag Factory is a turn-of-the-century factory turned shopper’s paradise. Stop in Shipshewana to stroll the shop-lined streets where you’ll find handcrafted items, baked goods, and the Midwest’s largest flea market. Treat yourself to a horse-drawn buggy ride or ride the restored 1906 carousel at the Davis Mercantile. Enjoy a delightful Amish meal at Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury. The Village Shops include home accents in Dutch Country Gifts, Christmas ornaments in The Cabin, women’s and children’s fashions at The ClothesLine, and, of course, handmade coziness at The Quilt Shop. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roam Free in Greater Zion

Zion National Park is one of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks and (for good reason) many people travel to the state to see its natural wonders but Utah Dixie offers so much more for outdoor enthusiasts. Surrounding St. George are four superb state parks—Quail Creek, Sand Hollow, Gunlock, and Snow Canyon—all offering gorgeous scenery and plenty of ways to enjoy nature including hiking, camping, fishing, boating, photography, cliff diving, and swimming.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These parks are great alternatives to the busier national park particularly on weekends and during Zion’s high season. Expect low entrance fees, uncrowded trails, plenty of wet and wild water sports, starlit campgrounds, and breathtaking scenery. Here’s just a taste of what you can expect.

Located just 15 miles east of St. George, Sand Hollow State Park offers a wide-range of recreation opportunities. With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape it is one of the most popular parks because it has so much to offer. Boat and fish on Sand Hollow Reservoir, explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain Recreation Area on an off-highway vehicle, RV or tent camp in the modern campground.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just minutes away from Sand Hollow, Quail Creek State Park offers another reservoir for swimming but in a completely different landscape. The picturesque mountain background with rocky landscape and blue water gives this reservoir a breathtaking view. Quail Lake, a sprawling 600-acre lake in the Quail Creek State Park, fills a valley northeast of St. George. This park has some of the warmest waters in the state and is a popular area for fishing as well.

The Caverns of Senora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Caverns of Senora

Where the Texas Hill Country meets the Chihuahuan Dessert sits thousands of acres of limestone-rich ranch country. Found below the boots and hooves of those who inhabit and work the land is an underground treasure, The Caverns of Sonora. Located 15 miles southwest of Sonora on I-10, the Caverns of Sonora marks the halfway point between San Antonio and Big Bend National Park.

The Cavern is over seven and a half miles long but only two miles of trails are developed for tours. There are five levels of the cave that vary in depth from 20 feet to 180 feet below the surface. The Cavern is known for its stunning array of calcite crystal formations, extremely delicate formations, and the abundance and variety of formations. You’ll find helictites, soda straws stalactites, speleothems, stalagmites, and cave bacon. The cave is a constant 71 degrees with 98 percent humidity which makes it feel about 85 degrees.

Wolfeboro © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wolfeboro, New Hampshire

On Lake Winnipesaukee, Wolfeboro is fast becoming the best lake town in the Northeast. The drive to Wolfeboro is about two hours from Boston and five from New York City. The town center of Wolfeboro is actually positioned directly on Lake Winnipesaukee which offers an expansive 72 square miles of water. Your life in Wolfeboro will be filled with sunset swims at Brewster Beach, ice cream cones at Wolfeboro Dockside Grille & Dairy Bar, and ales and snacks at Lone Wolfe Brewing Company. Treat your family to a boat tour aboard the M/S Mount Washington which has offered cruises on the lake for nearly 150 years.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is big, it’s diverse, and it’s extreme. Temperatures can be harsh, from 120 degrees in the summer to well below freezing in winter on the high plateaus.

From the mouth of the Grand Canyon, the park follows the Arizona-Nevada border along what was formerly 140 miles of the Colorado River.

Camping at Lake Mead near Las Vegas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead is impressive: 1.5 million acres, 110 miles in length when the lake is full, 550 miles of shoreline, around 500 feet at its greatest depth, 255 square miles of surface water, and when filled to capacity, 28 million acre-feet of water. Although much of Lake Mead can only be experienced by boat, a variety of campgrounds, marinas, lodges, and picnic areas around the lake make it possible for non-boaters to also enjoy the recreation area. Most activities are concentrated along the 20 miles of the southwest shore close to Las Vegas. Facilities include two large marinas at Boulder Beach and Las Vegas Bay plus campgrounds, beaches, picnic areas, and the main National Recreation Area visitor center.

Worth Pondering…

“‘Heat, ma’am!’ I said; ‘it was so dreadful here, that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.”

—Sydney Smith

Custer State Park: A Black Hills Gem

Custer State Park offers forest, meadows, mountains, and wildlife including a herd of 1,300 bison

Custer State Park in the beautiful Black Hills of western South Dakota is famous for its bison herds, other wildlife, scenic drives, historic sites, visitor centers, fishing lakes, resorts, campgrounds, and interpretive programs. In fact, it was named as one of the World’s Top Ten Wildlife Destinations for the array of wildlife within the park’s borders and for the unbelievable access visitors have to them.

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

One of America’s largest state parks, Custer has been home to diverse cultural heritages for thousands of years and has provided an array of scenic beauty and outdoor recreation for visitors since the early 1900s. Custer State Park is full of lush forests, quiet and serene meadows, and majestic mountains. Few truly wild places remain in this country. Custer State Park is one of them.

Thirty to sixty million bison once roamed the great plains of North America. By the close of the 19th century, it’s estimated that less than 1,000 bison survived. Historically, the animal played an essential role in the lives of the Lakota (Sioux), who relied on the “Tatanka” for food, clothing, and shelter.

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

Today, nearly 1,300 bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres of mountains, hills, and prairie which they share with a wealth of wildlife including pronghorn antelope, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, coyotes, wild turkeys, a band of burros, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs.

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

The bison herd roams freely throughout the park and is often found along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in the southern part of the park. Bison seem docile but can run very fast and turn on a dime. Weighing as much as 2,000 pounds, these animals are forces to be reckoned with. Visitors should stay inside their vehicles when viewing the bison and not get too close. Most wildlife can easily be seen from your car. Bear in mind, they are wild. Keep your distance.

Visit the last Friday in September and feel the thunder and join the herd at the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup (September 24, in 2021). Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they round up and drive the herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo. Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, but it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.

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

The Buffalo Roundup begins at 9:30 a.m. with the parking lots opening at 6:15 a.m. Arrive early to pick your spot. Guests must stay in the viewing areas until the herd is safely in the corrals, generally around noon. Breakfast is available at 6:15 a.m. in both viewing areas. Lunch is served at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals. Testing, branding, and sorting of the buffalo begins at 1 p.m. and lasts until approximately 3 p.m. Crews will work the remainder of the herd in October.

In addition to wildlife, the park features several historic sites, including the State Game Lodge, the Badger Hole, the Gordon Stockade, the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center, and the Mount Coolidge Fire Tower. The Black Hills Playhouse, which hosts performances each summer, is also located within the park, as are four resorts, each offering lodging, dining, and activities.

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

The park also has four mountain lakes. These lakes, along with several streams, offer many water recreation and fishing opportunities.

In March 1919, Custer State Park was named the first official state park. In 2019, South Dakota’s oldest state park celebrated 100 years of outdoor tradition. Each year, more than 1.5 million visitors enjoy the numerous and varied activities, attractions, and events found year-round within Custer State Park.

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

The park is a driver’s delight. There are three scenic drives—Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, and Wildlife Loop Road—which are part of the extensive network of backcountry lanes on the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway for 70 miles, the route threads its way around pigtail bridges, through one-lane rock-walled tunnels, and ascends to the uppermost heights of the Needles.

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

The needle-like granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon in Custer State Park, known as the Needles, are truly see-it-to-believe-it phenomena. Drive Needles Highway to see for yourself just how majestic these outcroppings are in person. The Needles Highway is much 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.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The adventurous should carve out time to hike Cathedral Spires Trail. This moderate 1.5-mile trail offers spectacular views of these unique rock formations. You’ll likely pass rock climbers hauling gear in or out of the trail, as the spires are home to some of the most sought-after climbing routes in the Black Hills.

Wild burros seeking handouts in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other top trails include Sunday Gulch Trail, Little Devils Tower Trail, Lover’s Leap Trail, and Sylvan Lake Shore Trail. You can begin your trek to Black Elk Peak at one of two trailheads within the park.

The roadway was carefully planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback. Construction was completed in 1922.

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

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.

The 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road takes visitors through open grasslands and pine-speckled hills that much of the park’s wildlife call home.

Mount Rushmore from the Iron Mountain Road in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 18-mile Iron Mountain Road winds between Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the junction of U.S. 16A and SR 36. Constructed in 1933, only a portion of this road lies within the park, but it is a must-see.

The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway complements the park’s three scenic drives and includes some of the most dramatic natural and historic features in the Black Hills.

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

Following an action-packed day, sleep under the stars in Custer State Park. There are nine campgrounds tucked away in ponderosa pine forests, alongside fresh flowing streams, or near a mountain lake. The choice is yours! Campsites accommodate RVs and tents. Each campsite offers gravel or paved camping pad, a fire grate, and a picnic table. Electric hookups are available in most campgrounds. Or, you can relax in a one-room, log-style camping cabin or historic lodge located throughout the park.

The clear mountain waters are inviting and the open ranges are waiting to be discovered. Bring your family to Custer State Park and let yourself run wild.

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

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.

Wall Drug: America’s Favorite Roadside Attraction

Wall Drug is NOT your typical drug store

Ever see one of those weird signs along the side of the road that read “Wall Drug, 3,472 miles,” and been like “I saw a Walgreens like three exits ago!” But, Wall Drug is NOT your typical drug store but rather a landmark shopping extravaganza off I-90 an hour east of Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to four city blocks of every local souvenir imaginable, it has a restaurant with buffalo burgers and fresh doughnuts, life-sized dinosaur replicas, a jackalope that you can ride—and FREE ICE WATER!

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the world’s most well-known tourist stops, it’s hard to believe Wall Drug Store got its start with something we wouldn’t even turn our heads at today—the promise of free ice water. But in fact, Ted and Dorothy Hustead turned free ice water into a million dollar idea with a little determination and quick thinking.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How do you make a living in a town of 230 people that is unanimously described as being “in the middle of nowhere” by residents and tourists alike during the middle of the Great Depression? You work with what you have—even if it’s not much. This is the story of how a tiny little drug store became the world famous Wall Drug. 

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The history of Wall Drug as we know it began back in 1931, when Nebraskan Ted Hustead bought it. He was looking to move to a small town with a Catholic Church and open a pharmacy, and Wall, South Dakota met his requirements.

Business was pretty slow at first—total shocker, right? It was Dorothy who finally dreamed up a brilliant plan to bring in more customers to their establishment: put up billboards offering free cups of refreshing ice water to tourists passing near Wall on their way to Mount Rushmore, about 60 miles west.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The year was 1936. The Great Depression gripped the nation, and the Dust Bowl made things doubly bad on the high plains. It’s doubtful many businesses had worse prospects than Hustead’s small establishment in that small town in the far reaches of western South Dakota.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So remote and drought-stricken was Wall that, when Ted bought the town’s drug store, his father-in-law told him, “You know, Wall is just about as Godforsaken as you can get.”

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ted put the signs up along Route 16A (Interstate 90 would eventually come through Wall, but not until 1969), and the tourists came. They stopped for the free ice water. They bought ice cream. And since then, they’ve bought millions of touristy trinkets and spent countless hours partaking of the free, fun and shopping that is the modern Wall Drug.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Their advertising campaign pretty much set the standard for tourist attractions: you can find billboards advertising Wall Drug lining the highways—especially I-90 between Minnesota and Billings, Montana. You can even find billboards for Wall Drug in the most unexpected of places, like Antarctica.

Over 80 years later the 76,000-square-foot drug store—which now includes restaurants, Western art galleries, shops and children’s activities along with a pharmacy—draws thousands of visitors each summer day.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wall Drug is a rest stop from the era when you really would stop to rest, rather than pull off the interstate, gas up, and go. It’s a rest stop worth taking because once the roads get this long—and the roads here do get long—you really do need more than a few minutes to decompress before facing the next stretch of asphalt.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But, Wall Drug more than a tourist trap—it’s an icon. It brings in 2 million visitors each year to a town that people would ordinarily drive right past without a second thought. But the fact that, even though it has grown into a massive complex of kitsch and touristy cliches, they’ll still serve you a free cup of ice water when you pull up, really does say it all.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Free Ice Water. It brought us Husteads a long way and it taught me my greatest lesson, and that’s that there’s absolutely no place on God’s earth that’s Godforsaken. No matter where you live, you can succeed, because wherever you are, you can reach out to other people with something that they need!

—Ted Hustead, founder of Wall Drug

a-MAIZ-ing Corn-fused Roadside Attraction

The Corn Palace is an a-maiz-ing marvel of agricultural innovation

A two-story mural of Willie Nelson is made completely of corn. The high school team is called the Kernels. Their mascot is Cornelius. You gotta embrace it! Mitchell may well be the corniest city in America. No city is as singularly associated with a building as Mitchell is with its iconic arena/community center’s 43,000-square-foot piece of folk art known as the Corn Palace. And the people lean into it. Hard!

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Mitchell has the icon of innovation­—the amazing Corn Palace. The Mitchell Corn Palace is the only corn palace in the world, a fact you’ll see on varied billboards lining Interstate 90 as you speed through South Dakota. As curiosity lures you off the highway, you’ll pull onto Mitchell’s small-town Main Street and find a bright-gold behemoth that looks like a tornado hit Moscow and dropped part of the Kremlin on the prairie.  

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. This “palace” looks like something straight out of Russia, built in 1892 to showcase South Dakota’s bountiful harvests.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And though it might be tempting to write off the Corn Palace as yet another kitschy South Dakota roadside attraction, its origins far predate the interstate. Or even the automobile.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first corn palace was built in 1892, but back then it wasn’t the only one in the world. Or even in the state. There were several of them throughout South Dakota and into Nebraska and Iowa. Stroll past the Corn-cession stand in the main concourse. Everything around us smells like popcorn. It was a celebration for the farmers, for all their hard work on the harvest. They wanted to pay homage to agriculture. And over time for whatever reason those communities did not maintain their corn palace and Mitchell thought, ‘hey, this is a cool thing. We’re going to keep going’.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And keep going they did: Through 128 years and three different locations until settling on the current one at 604 North Main Street in 1920. Though the building’s longevity is impressive, what’s perhaps most astounding is that Mitchell redoes the entire thing every year. Before spring planting, the city decides on the theme for the murals that will adorn the Corn Palace for the coming year. This year’s, for example, is “South Dakota Home Grown.” Once the theme is established, a team of students from Dakota Wesleyan University designs the murals. Based on the color scheme, a single local farmer then grows over 375,000 ears of corn in 12 different varieties to match the motif.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once harvest comes—typically in late September—the corn is soaked in giant water buckets to make it pliable. Giant tar paper outlines are plastered on the Corn Palace walls with color coded sections determining which corn goes where. Workers then air-nail the corn to the tar paper in a sort of paint-by-numbers game until the entire palace is covered. Typically it’s ready by the beginning of December but all of that is weather-dependent. They’re not going to have people decorating when it’s 20 below and a blizzard is blowing.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The grass is generally replaced in June or July when it shines the brightest green. So if you want to see the Corn Palace in its full Technicolor glory early summer is probably the best time to visit. The entire project costs about $175,000 which is a small investment for something that draws half a million visitors annually.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, droughts or floods can affect the crop. So some years there’s not enough corn to redo the whole thing and murals stay up for two years or more. Though the corn doesn’t rot, it fades, and birds pick off parts of the building.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though you’ll never find a shortage of roadside gawkers wandering the corn-cob concourses of the Corn Palace and the gift shop that occupies the arena floor, it has practical uses too. It hosts 335 events a year including high school and Dakota Wesleyan athletics, concerts, and festivals.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Corn is not just corn―there are many different types. The kind people eat on the cob is known as sweet corn (Zea mays convar. saccharata var. rugosa). The corn that dominates most American farms is known as field corn (Zea mays indentata). And if you’re looking for popcorn, that’s a whole different kind of corn, too. This kind of corn is simply called popcorn (Zea mays everta). Corn is not just corn.

The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Amber walls and prairie grass make for impressive landscapes in western SoDak

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands.

More than half the North American continent was once grassland like that which exists in the Badlands. Today, only two percent of that grassland remains—it has since been replaced by farm fields, ranches, and cities. Nearly 600,000 acres of prairie grassland border the national park in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, as well as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Buffalo Gap National Grassland meets Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands is a geologic term for a type of dry terrain where soft sedimentary rocks are extensively eroded by wind and water. The title is also derived from the Native American Lakota name “mako sica” meaning “land bad” for its extreme weather, lack of water, and rugged exposed landscape. French-Canadian fur trappers seconded that notion dubbing it les mauvais terres pour traverse, or “bad lands to travel through.”

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To Native Americans, the area was a seasonal hunting ground for bison, animals that again inhabit the park. Sharing the prairie landscape are pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and coyotes. In prairie dog “towns,” black-tailed prairie dogs in large numbers pop out of their holes alerting pals when outsiders are coming. Overhead, birdlife watches over the landscape—magpie, hawks, bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and as many as 211 other bird species have been identified.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is divided into two sections: the main North Unit and the largely roadless and inaccessible Stronghold Unit located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the park’s southern section. Driving is one of the most popular ways to see the park and routes such as the Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) are well marked. Park entry costs $30 per car ($15 if you enter by foot or by bike).

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Think of the Badlands National Park as remote and prepare accordingly. Cedar Pass Lodge serves as the park’s only commercial hub with a restaurant, gift shop, and snacks for sale. Restrooms are available here as well as in the parks two visitor centers, campgrounds, and picnic area.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come prepared with ample supplies of water. This is especially important if you go hiking; the Park Service recommends two quarts per person for every two hours of hiking. Also bring your own snacks, sunscreen, wide-brimmed hat (we recommend a Tilley), and sunglasses. Sturdy hiking boots will help with footing on some of the looser trails and also protect you from cactus spines.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That said, you don’t have to be an outdoors expert or hiking ninja to enjoy the park. In addition to scenic drives and turnouts, there are easy short hikes of less than one mile and one fully accessible boardwalk trail as well as wooden boardwalks at most scenic overlooks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You ARE allowed to walk onto the badland formations throughout the park. Naturally occurring erosion makes it so that footprints don’t have a great effect on the landscape. Watch where you step and place your hands though—there are prairie rattlesnakes throughout the park. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You just might have heard of tiny Wall (population less than 1,000), the park’s chief northern gateway and named for the rock-wall formation that runs across the park. Billboards on Interstate 90 touting “free ice water” have been pulling in traffic to Wall Drug since 1936. Originally a drugstore, it’s now a tourist attraction—thronged in summer by up to 20,000 visitors a day—with a splash park, Western art gallery-cum-restaurant, and a mall selling everything from cowboy boots to mounted Jackalope (a fictional animal). It’s a kitschy but must-visit experience complete with homemade donuts and five-cent cups of coffee.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At a glimpse

Total acres: 244,000

Date established: November 10, 1978 (established as a National Monument: January 29, 1939)

Highest peak: Sheep Mountain Table, 3,300 feet

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Miles and numbers of trails: 17.5 miles among eight trails

Main attraction: Striated rock formations

Cost: Entry $30 per vehicle

Best way to see it: Driving the Badlands Loop Road

When to go to avoid the crowds: Spring or fall

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger and you are very small…

—Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow