The Wild West and the American Heartland intersect in the beautiful Badlands and Black Hills regions of South Dakota. This area is known for its geological marvels and cultural heritage and has captured the imaginations of travelers for generations, creating a must-see experience for those in search of true outdoor adventure.
Discover the rugged beauty of Badlands National Park, an arid landscape that has been shaped by millions of years of erosion, uncovering rock layers, ancient sea beds, and fossils that provide a window into the early history of North America. The canyons and ridges of the Badlands challenge hikers and reward them with stunning views, while the sprawling plains offer opportunities to see the Badlands’ native wildlife, including bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs.
In the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, exhibits cover the many inhabitants who have called the Badlands home, from the mosasaurs (50-foot-long ancient marine lizards) to modern day’s prairie rattlesnakes. Visit the Fossil Preparation Lab to see the Badlands’ dedicated paleontologists in action as they continue to uncover and preserve the discoveries from this incredible region.
Just north of the Badlands is Wall, South Dakota, a must-visit city with many engaging sites to add to your group’s itinerary. While the National Grasslands Visitor Center is under construction this year, the new and improved center will introduce visitors to the ecological diversity of prairie landscapes. In the meantime, stop by the temporary trailer to chat with the park rangers and learn some interesting tidbits. Wall Drug Store, perhaps the most recognizable attraction in town, is much more than a drug store. Peruse historical photos in the Backyard, dine in the Western Art Gallery Restaurant (order the doughnuts!), and shop for authentic Western apparel. While you’re in town, don’t forget to snap a group photo in front of the 80-foot green dinosaur!
Venture west of the Badlands to find Black Hills National Forest, which stretches 1.2 million acres across South Dakota and Wyoming. Here, groups can explore striking rock formations, canyons, gulches, grasslands, and serene streams and lakes. Before venturing out along the well-maintained trails, stop by the Pactola Visitor Center to learn more about the region’s natural wonders and the complex geological processes that created them.
A group tour of the Black Hills should always include a trip to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, one of the most iconic landmarks in the U.S. Each year, more than 2 million people visit the monument to see the presidential gazes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln across the vast South Dakota skies. There’s plenty to do at Mount Rushmore in addition to visiting the monument: Walk the Presidential Trail through the ponderosa pine forest, learn about construction of the monument in The Sculptor’s Studio, and join park rangers for inspirational programming about the presidents’ and the nation’s history.
Just south of Mount Rushmore is another impressive rock carving that holds deep significance. Crazy Horse Memorial is a massive monument honoring Chief Crazy Horse of the Oglala band of the Lakota peoples and is the largest sculptural undertaking in the world. Groups can learn more about this storied hero and the history and culture of the Black Hill’s Native residents at the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational and Cultural Center.
Written by Katherine Lawless
Main Image: Badlands Sunrise; Credit: Travel South Dakota