AAA Road Trip: South Dakota's Black Hills

AAA Mid States

This picturesque route winds through South Dakota's Black Hills, taking you from one of America's best-known landmarks, Mount Rushmore, past granite spires and into historic mining towns nestled in valleys thick with Ponderosa pine. The area packs so much scenery into a small area that it's become a mecca for motorcyclists and anyone else who loves the outdoors.


Mount Rushmore National Memorial to Spearfish

Leaving Mount Rushmore National Memorial, you'll sample a short portion of Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, which twists and turns through some of the Black Hills' prettiest scenery. Passing through Rapid City, South Dakota's second largest city, the route then skirts the edge of the Black Hills, traversing mostly grassy, rolling terrain on the way to Spearfish.

Recommended Stops:

Bear Country U.S.A. (AAA Gem) – 13820 US 16S, Rapid City, SD 57702

This drive-through park features a variety of North American wildlife. Elk, wolves, Rocky Mountain goats, bighorn sheep and buffalo roam freely in their native habitat. The highlight of the tour is one of the largest privately owned collections of black bears. The wildlife walkway is a walk-through area that allows visitors to view park offspring and other small animals; a shuttle is available for the physically impaired.

Reptile Gardens (AAA Gem) – 8955 S. Mount Rushmore Rd., Rapid City, SD 57702

Reptile Gardens are exhibits that highlight what is believed to be the world’s largest reptile collection. The Sky Dome features an indoor walk-through jungle with lizards and harmless snakes and parrots as well as orchids and other tropical plants. Other areas house crocodilians, rare and exotic venomous snakes, giant pythons, insects and amphibians.

Perennial favorites are the herd of giant tortoises and Maniac, a 15-foot-long saltwater crocodile from Australia. Entertainment includes alligator and crocodile, bird and snake shows. Outdoor botanical gardens are landscaped with more than 40,000 flowering plants.


Spearfish to Deadwood

The prairie abruptly yields to tall pines and yellowish limestone cliffs as you enter the Black Hills from the north via Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. Trails lead from pullouts along the byway to pretty waterfalls tumbling over the cliffs. Heading east toward Lead, the route ascends heavily forested hills to the historic gold rush towns of Lead and Deadwood.

Recommended Stops:

Black Hills Mining Museum (AAA Gem) – 323 W. Main St., Lead, SD 57754

The history and heritage of mining in the Black Hills is depicted through exhibits, historic photographs and life-size models. Guided 45-minute tours lead through a simulated underground level of the Homestake Gold Mine, which operated 1876-2002, allowing visitors to see examples of both early and modern mining techniques.


Deadwood to Jewel Cave National Monument

The scenery along US 385 is pretty—pine trees and a view of Pactola Reservoir—but not especially dramatic as you travel south toward Custer and then west to Jewel Cave National Monument. If time permits, a side trip along Needles Highway (SR 87 south of Hill City) into Custer State Park offers a spectacular jaunt beneath granite spires on a narrow, two-lane road.

Recommended Stops:

1880 Train (AAA Gem) – 222 Railroad Ave., Hill City, SD 57745

One of America's last steam trains still in service, the 1880 Train features Baldwin steam locomotives and 19th-century coaches. Visitors may take 2.25-hour round trips along a scenic route that early miners and pioneers used to explore the Black Hills. Guides narrate the ride with a historical perspective. The 1880 Train was used in the filming of television's “Gunsmoke” series, the made-for-television movie “Orphan Train” and Steven Spielberg’s “Into the West.”

Needles Highway Scenic Drive (AAA Gem) – SR 87 & US 16, Custer, SD 57730

The 14-mile route through Custer State Park threads among the oddly shaped, weathered granite spires from which the highway derives its name. One of the more prominent formations along the way is the Needle's Eye, which stands in excess of 30 feet and has a slit down its center about three feet wide.

Crazy Horse Memorial (AAA Gem) – 12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Custer, SD 57730

The giant mountain sculpture was begun by Korczak Ziolkowski, at the request of Lakota chiefs, and represents Native Americans of all tribes. Upon completion, the in-the-round figure of Crazy Horse astride his horse will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long, the largest statue in the world. The nine-story-high face of Crazy Horse is complete. Visitors can see ongoing work on the memorial.

Custer State Park (AAA Gem) – Custer, SD 57730

Custer State Park comprises 71,000 acres of the South Dakota Black Hills and is the habitat of one of the world's largest publicly owned free-roaming bison herds, numbering about 1,300. More than 180 bird species also inhabit the park.


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Source: AAA Road Trips