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Unless you live nearby, most Americans know little about the Black Hills of South Dakota, but this lush region filled with forested hills and mountains, lakes, streams, and waterfalls, is home to a wealth of attractions that make it an ideal vacation destination.
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Mount Rushmore National Memorial features the 60-foot faces of four American presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, who were all carved into the granite face of the mountain. It took Gutzon Borglum and a crew of 400 to create the monument that showcases the influential presidents, between 1927 and 1941. It was considered an extraordinary feat of engineering then, and it’s still extremely impressive today. The state’s most popular attraction, the surrounding park includes a museum with interactive exhibits and two theaters that show “The Shrine,” a short film which provides an introduction to the memorial; a half-mile walking trail, dining room, and gift shop.
The Crazy Horse Memorial in Custer is just a short drive from Mount Rushmore and offers the chance to witness the world’s largest ongoing mountain carving. While this massive project that started in 1948 isn’t finished yet and it will take many more years to complete, it aims to pay tribute to the tradition, culture and living heritage of American Indians, and the spirit of the legendary Lakota leader Crazy Horse. The campus includes the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational & Cultural Center which offers cultural and educational programming. Visitors can also see Korczak’s Studio & Home, which showcases many of the artist’s works, including the Horse’s Head that he carved in nine days, Old Pagen, and the Polish Eagle. A gift shop and restaurant are also on site.
Custer State Park, located in the heart of the Black Hills, is made up of 71,000 acres of gorgeous terrain, and an abundance of wildlife like bison, elk, pronghorn, deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, eagles, and wild burros. Even if you’ve never been to this part of the country, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Sylvan Lake, consider the park’s crown jewel. It’s a favorite with photographers, with its image splashed across numerous brochures, postcards, and other Black Hills-related material, and it was also featured in the 2007 film “National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets.” This picturesque little lake includes a swimming beach as well as watercraft rentals like paddle boats and canoes. To see impressive rock formations, take a scenic drive on the Needles Highway too.
Deadwood offers the chance to relive the days of the Wild West. One of the most famous Old West towns, thanks to the HBO series with the same name, this gold rush town was certainly the real deal. Thousands arrived in the 1870s, seeking to strike it rich or to make money off those who did, including the legendary Wild Bill Hickok who was shot in the back by Jack McCall during a poker game in the summer of ’76. While the return of legalized gambling in 1989 transformed the town into a popular tourist destination, it still offers a number of historic attractions. Tour the lavish Adams House, a Queen Anne-style mansion, view interesting exhibits at Adams Museum, pan for gold at the Lost Boot Mine and even watch a good ‘ol fashioned shootout, with a cast of talented entertainers reenacting the historic events on Main Street throughout the summer each year.
The 1880 Train is a vintage steam train similar to the ones that helped settle the American West. It offers the chance for what may be the highlight of your time in this region, with a two-hour, 20-mile round-trip ride through the scenic Black Hills between Hill City and Keystone. This fun and entertaining historical steam train experience allows passengers to explore the astounding beauty of the area while rolling across the rugged terrain, listening to the whine of the whistle and getting a fascinating education through narration on the railroad and the region. Daily departures from Hill City and Keystone are available between May and October, with occasional special events offered, including the Mother’s Day Express, Wine Express, Old West Shootouts, Oktoberfest Express and more.
The third-longest cave in the world, with 173 miles of explored passageways, offers a variety of tours, allowing you to go below the surface, as well as featuring a 1,279-acre park with nature trails above ground. Hell Canyon Trail, a 5.3-mile trek, will bring you to limestone cliffs with amazing views of the canyon and surrounding area. The underground environment showcases brilliant color and fragile rocks in an ecosystem that can’t be seen anywhere else. You’ll be mesmerized by its calcite crystals, stalagmites, stalactites, frostwork, boxwork, draperies, flowstone and hydromagnesite balloons. After the tour, bird-watchers can enjoy watching for the roughly 120 species that call the national monument home – red-breasted nuthatch sightings are common, while bald eagles are occasionally spotted too.
Located just south of Rapid City, Bear Country USA is home to the largest collection of privately owned black bears in the world. Go on a wildlife safari by taking the two-mile drive through the park, tucked away on 250 acres in the Black Hills, where you’ll get to see more than 20 species of North American animals, including black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, big horn sheep, elk and buffalo, all living in large natural exhibits to mimic their wild environment as much as possible. After your drive tour, you can head to Babyland – this is likely to be the highlight of your time here, offering a chance to walk through the area, watching baby bears romp and play with each other as well as some of the offspring of the parks’ other animals.
Evans Plunge is an indoor and outdoor natural spring-fed mineral water pool that stays at a pleasant 87 degrees. Located in the small town of Hot Springs at the southern end of the Black Hills, it’s been one of the region’s most popular attractions for over 127 years. It features a 164-foot indoor water slide, an aqua jet speed slide, kiddie slide and traveling rings. The facility also includes hot tubs, a sauna and steam room, as well as a gift shop and concessions.
The Mammoth Site, also located in Hot Springs, in an active paleontological dig site that’s home to the world’s largest concentration of mammoth remains. Most of the fossils found here are from the North American Columbia mammoth, though evidence of three wooly mammoths have also been discovered, making this the only site where both species have been found together. Scientists estimate that over 100 mammoths accumulated here in this small area, with the animals found right where they died. A wealth of other Ice Age animal fossils have been found in this now-dry 26,000-year-old sinkhole, including the giant short-faced bear, camel, wolf, llama, coyote and prairie dog. Admission includes an introduction video, a 30-minute guided tour and entrance to the Exhibit Hall which features full-size replicas of mammoths and a giant short-faced bear.
Spearfish Canyon is one of the most beautiful locations in the Black Hills – so stunning, in fact, that cinematographers chose it as the setting of the final scenes in “Dances with Wolves.” One of its highlights is Roughlock Falls, which offers a picturesque place to enjoy a picnic or to cast your line. There are also a number of hiking trails throughout the canyon, and in the fall, it’s an ideal place for photographers to capture the vibrant gold and red aspen leaves.
Reptile Gardens holds the Guinness World Record for the largest reptile collection. It also features a spectacular botanical garden with 50,000 flowers as well as tropical birds and gorgeous minerals. Be sure to bring your camera, as you may be able to get close enough to one of the three giant tortoises (Orville, Tank and Quazi) to take a great selfie. Up close and personal animal encounters are possible with one of the snakes, a baby gator and some of the other photogenic critters. At Bewitched Village, an Old West ghost town, you can go gemstone and Arrowhead sluicing and more, and, visitors can also take in a variety of shows. The Gator Show features crocs, caimans, and alligators, while the Exotic Bird Shows offer the chance for intimate interaction with a variety of exotic birds, including a falcon, macaw, parrot and owl.