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South Dakota might be known for Mars-esque rockscapes, motorcycle rallies, and famous faces carved in stone, but the Badlands, Sturgis, and Mt. Rushmore certainly aren’t the only things that make the 40th state so great. Its Black Hills are the site of sacred Native American history, as well as wild—often calamitous—tales of Western lore. Two of the world’s longest caves snake beneath the surface, just begging to be explored. Above ground, a Rail-Trail Hall of Famer runs more than 100 miles, nearly all unpaved and never climbing more than an approachable four percent grade.
And since 2023 marks a milestone birthday for these destinations in South Dakota’s southwestern corner—all of which sit within a six-hour drive from Denver—there’s only one thing to do: Plan a road trip. Here’s your itinerary for a memorable long weekend celebrating the beauty of the Black Hills.
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Why visit now? Calamity Jane was buried here 120 years ago
Denver to Deadwood: 6 hours
Start your journey in Deadwood’s Mt. Moriah Cemetery to pay your respects to Martha Jane Burke. According to legend, she charged into battle to save the life of an army captain and emerged unscathed, thereby earning the name we all recognize her by: Calamity Jane. Reports of Jane riding a bull down Rapid City’s main drag, serving as a scout for General George Armstrong Custer, preferring a duster and pants to petticoats, and performing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show further immortalized her tale. How much of her story is actually true? That’s up for debate. What isn’t: her affinity for exaggeration. The Old West icon died on August 1, 1903, and she now forever rests next to another folk hero (and her unrequited love), Wild Bill Hickok. Entrance fee: $2
Why visit now? The award-winning Rails-to-Trails path celebrates its silver anniversary
Deadwood to Rochford trailhead: 35 minutes
Completed in September 1998 and named after the governor who championed its construction, the George S. Mickelson Trail spans 109 miles as it winds through pine forests and prairies from Deadwood to Edgemont. Along the crushed limestone and gravel path, you’ll find 35 informational signs to help you make sense of the Mickelson, four historic rock tunnels (vestiges of the trail’s railroad past), and more than 100 bridges (also nice: plenty of vault toilets). The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy designated it a “trail of the month” in May 2010 thanks to its functionality and the historical footnotes you’ll discover along the way. Visitors can tackle the trail on foot, horse, or skis, but most seem to prefer two-wheeled pursuits, e-bikes in particular.
Get a taste of the trail with an out-and-back ride starting at the Rochford trailhead. Point your handlebars southeast toward Hill City, where you’ll crisscross Rapid Creek until you pedal through Tunnel C. Power up with a snack and refill your water bottle eight miles later at the Mystic trailhead. You’ll need it to climb the nearly 500 feet in elevation gain that awaits you on the way back. Trail fee: $4 daily per person
Why visit now? The largest mountain carving in the world turns 75
Rochford trailhead to Crazy Horse Memorial: 1 hour
When Chief Henry Standing Bear saw the faces of four American patriots permanently etched into the side of Mt. Rushmore—a mountain-turned-monument that sits squarely within his Lakota peoples’ sacred Paha Sapa, or Black Hills—he felt a response was in order. “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also,” he wrote to respected sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who would go on to spend nearly 36 years memorializing Lakota warrior Tasunke Witko, better known as Crazy Horse, in stone.
On June 3, 1948, the first blast of the Crazy Horse Memorial rang out. Today, the in-process sculpture showcases the Lakota warrior’s face; his extended arm and finger are beginning to emerge from the granite. When completed, the carving will show him astride a horse, hair flowing behind him, in a tribute that’s more than a city block tall and almost two football fields wide.
Your visit to Crazy Horse Memorial will include far more than a selfie with the monument—although the deck behind Laughing Water Restaurant is a great spot for this. Sculptor Ziolkowski’s family built an extensive complex that includes the Indian Museum of North America, the artist’s original log home, a 1/34-scale mountain model, and more—all of which serve to honor the original dreamers and Native American culture. Entry fee: $30 for two people in a vehicle through Sept. 30
Why visit now? These locally run standouts have been welcoming guests for 50 years and one year, respectively
Crazy Horse Memorial to Bavarian Inn: 15 minutes
Bavarian Inn to Hjem A.M.: 5 minutes
If you’re starting to long for the familiar at this point in your South Dakota drive, take a detour to these Custer haunts that are so hygge they feel like home. The Bavarian Inn, which opened in 1973, exudes warmth with flower-filled window boxes, jolly red shutters, and signs in the lobby declaring “gratitude” and “Willkommen” (“Welcome” in German). A complimentary cookie happy hour from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. each day makes it feel as though you’ve gone away to Granny’s, and staff that happily mail out postcards on your behalf (free of charge) contribute to the inviting vibe, as do the two pools, sunny patios, and pickleball court. Nightly rates vary
At Hjem A.M., you’ll find a Danish-inspired menu–rice pudding with marcona almonds and local honey, morning walleye with a sunny-side egg and mint emulsion–that’s worth forgoing the snooze button. However, it’s extra touches like a personal welcome from the owner and lap blankets for chilly guests that really set this morning eatery apart and help it live into its name, which means “home” in Danish.
Why visit now? The world’s fifth-longest cave celebrates 115 years as a national monument
Hjem A.M. to Jewel Cave National Monument: 15 minutes
Still hungry? Feast your eyes on cave bacon. This layered mineral deposit (which yes, resembles every carnivore’s favorite savory snack) is one of the most sought-after sights nestled 200 feet below ground in Jewel Cave. You’ll also see numerous displays of calcite crystals, the formations that gave this cave its name because early explorers thought they shone like jewels in the glow of their lanterns. Keen to develop the area into a tourist site, Frank and Albert Michaud claimed the land in 1900 and built both a lodge and an underground trail. Although their commercial efforts flopped—including the Jewel Cave Dancing Club, which consisted entirely of men—the national government still deemed the area worthy of preservation. On February 7, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the site a national monument.
In the 115 years since, experts have mapped around 215 miles of Jewel Cave, likely just five percent of its overall size. Ranger-led visits are the only way to experience the underground wonderland, so be sure to book a cave tour far in advance since they sell out. Pro tip: Wear close-toed shoes (required) and warm clothes (recommended) to be comfortable in an environment that remains 49 degrees year-round. Park entry: free; cave tours start at $6 for an adult
Why visit now? America’s eighth national park turns 120
Jewel Cave National Monument to Wind Cave National Park: 30 minutes
Where can you find a post office with no letters, a rookery with no birds, and a cathedral with no pews? Answer: inside the web of Wind Cave National Park’s more than 150 miles of mapped terrain. Declared the first national park to protect a cave on January 9, 1903, Wind Cave is a seemingly endless maze of rooms—including the post office, rookery and cathedral—filled with rare rock designs. Inside you’ll find thin blades of calcite known as boxwork, needle-like aragonite crystals called frostwork, and roundish growths along its walls affectionately deemed cave popcorn. This labyrinth of famous formations isn’t just a geological gem, it’s also integral to Lakota culture. According to their emergence story, the Lakota first emerged from the largest naturally occurring hole into Wind Cave, a passageway from the spirit world to earth.
Book a cave tour (ideally in advance), and save time to explore the above-ground attractions. More than 30 miles of hiking trails offer a chance to see pronghorn, great horned owls, and even rare black-footed ferrets, which bounced back from extinction. Just be sure to give the bison considerable space. Park entry: free; cave tours start at $14 for an adult