Rob Corso hits hiking trails, scales high points, and witnesses a uniquely American pastime in South Dakota's Black Hills. Spoiler: Beautiful buffalo photos below.
SOUTH DAKOTA – I want to live a good life. I'm not exactly sure what that means, but I'm learning. I've stepped into good life territory while traveling, mostly in the great outdoors. I have a hunch that the good life exists just beyond what's comfortable; that it lies in experience, not in objects.
At the end of this summer, I went searching. I had the opportunity to get back to a place I had breezed through hastily fifteen years ago while driving to California from New York.
This time, I dug in and discovered that for people who like to spend their time outside, the Black Hills of South Dakota are an exceptional place to visit. All those harsh, cold winters lead to incredibly lush summers, making this western corner of the state an outdoorsy paradise. There are five national parks. Incredible hiking, canoeing, fishing, camping, and sightseeing. I could have stayed for weeks.
I started in Spearfish Canyon, which has some of the most breathtaking views in the entire state. I got my feet wet (literally and figuratively) in Roughlock Falls during an easy one-mile hike out, where open valleys give way to Rocky Mountain peaks sparsely covered in ponderosa pines.
From the parking lot of the welcome center, in the opposite direction of the falls, is the '76 trail. It's three-quarters of a mile long, but 1,000 feet up to the rim of the canyon. My legs were feeling it by the time I got to the peak. But the views. Stunning.
I still had some energy, so I made the more strenuous hike up to Community Caves. This one is a bit trickier to find, but worth the effort. It's a short hike, only half a mile, but straight up some rough, slippery, and wet terrain. I was glad I wore my hiking boots. I made my way to the cave and found the waterfall that had made the climb slightly precarious. It was a nice soundtrack as I savored lunch and took in some more spectacular views of the Black Hills.
The most enjoyable hike in South Dakota is undoubtedly Harney Peak in Custer State Park, the highest point in South Dakota and anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. The best way to access the summit is to start at the trailhead at Sylvan Lake. Round trip to the summit and back is seven miles, and the walk is beautiful the entire way.
Come summer, wild raspberry bushes bloom along the trail that winds up the mountain. By the time you reach the top, your head will literally be in the clouds. Standing there, it was easy to understand why it's such scared ground to the Lakota people, a Native American tribe from the area.
I spent some time sitting quietly, watching the chipmunks that reside around the old stone fire tower at the peak. If you're gentle enough, they will eat right out of your hands.
Another incredible outdoor experience is visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial. It's the world's largest sculptural undertaking, dwarfing Mount Rushmore, with no estimate as to when it will be completed — certainly not in our lifetime. (Sixty-eight years and counting.) I had the opportunity to get to the top of the mountain and touch the face of Crazy Horse. Being able to get so close to such a massive, detailed artwork left me speechless.
There is magic in the Badlands. Words cannot do this place justice. Camp in the national park. See every inch of it that you can. I wish I could truly describe the rugged beauty of the place, and what it felt like to stand on the edge of the gorges as the sun was rising, changing the color of the rock every minute. But it's a place you have to experience to understand.
I found the best views and colors at Door Trail at sunrise on the east side of the park, and at Pinnacles at sunset on the west. Next time, I'll bring a loved one.
On the last day of my trip, I went to the 50th Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup. Each September, a group of about 40 cowboys and cowgirls gather the 1,300 buffalo that live in the park and herd them into corrals so they can manage the bison population.
I spent the entire morning in the back of a pickup truck following the cowboys as they wrangled buffalo. A raging stampede of bison is an intimidating thing to behold, especially from close range, but the cowboys handled the herd masterfully. With every whoop and holler and crack of the whip, it was clear I was witnessing something profoundly and uniquely American.
And the crowds followed. More than 20,000 spectators took in beautiful views as the animals raced across the Black Hills.
At the Governor's dinner later that evening, it was clear how proud the people of South Dakota are of their annual roundup. In the hills with the bison, tasting the dust and watching the thundering stampede, it was pure adrenaline.
It would be easy to spend an afternoon in historic Deadwood, the once lawless town made popular by the Black Hills gold rush in the 1870s. And any drive through South Dakota wouldn't be complete without the requisite stop at Wall Drug, one of America's most popular roadside souvenir shopping malls.
But outside is the place for me. When I'm exploring this planet, the most profound moments happen in nature — when I'm in the mountains, or in the ocean, or out in the desert. There's a good life out there, and I found part of it in the wilds of South Dakota.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Getting There and Around
The most direct way to get to the Black Hills is to fly into Rapid City. From there, everything is accessible by car. Routes to all the attractions are easy to navigate. This is a place built on tourism, so signage is clear. Lots of friendly locals are happy to help you out as well.
Where to Stay
There's an abundance of affordable lodging. Frontier Cabins Motel near the entrance to the Badlands is a good spot. Spearfish Canyon Lodge has some nice rooms. The State Game Lodge in Custer Park is a real treat for its historic past and beautiful rooms. Their restaurant has some of the best food in the state. But for an extra dose of charm, check out nice cabins or vacation home rentals on Airbnb.