South Dakota Bucket List Trip

When you think South Dakota, what do you think of? No, Fargo is in the other Dakota. But Mount Rushmore is in South Dakota. Now we’re getting somewhere. The fact is that there is actually a lot in South Dakota. Hear me out here. I believe that South Dakota actually has one of the highest concentrations of outdoor bucket list things to do in all of America. In 72 hours you could see one of America’s most beautiful national parks, Badlands National Park, drive one of America’s most beautiful routes, the Needles Highway, visit South Dakota’s largest state park, Custer State Park, and visit two of the world’s largest stone carvings, Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Crazy Horse Memorial.

And I did just that in 72 hours (because America?). So today I’m bringing you the 4-1-1 on an outdoor South Dakota bucket list trip. Let’s go.

Mount Rushmore

Going to South Dakota and not visiting Mount Rushmore is kind of like visiting Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower. Mount Rushmore has become one of America’s most iconic landmarks, not to mention it’s one of the most impressive mountain carvings, characterized by 60-foot sculptures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. As I found out on this South Dakota bucket list trip, the best time to visit for photos is really in the morning, when the sun is hitting off the presidents’ faces.

However, while most images is of the front of Mount Rushmore, I actually loved the profile view of George Washington, which many visitors never see, located just off the highway after the entrance to Mount Rushmore. I especially nerd out to the history of Mount Rushmore, which dates back to the early 1900s, and originally was going to include a public stairway that led from the base of Mount Rushmore to the hall of records behind the presidents’ heads. Yes, there is really a secret room at Mount Rushmore, but no, you’re not able to visit it.

Crazy Horse Memorial

My trip started at the Crazy Horse Memorial, which will actually be the largest mountain carving in the world when completed (yes, larger than Mount Rushmore). Its story and history is one of the most fascinating to me among all of America’s landmarks. The campaign for the Crazy Horse Memorial started in the early 1900s by Chief Henry Standing Bear, as something of a response to Mount Rushmore. As Henry Standing Bear wrote, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too.” In 1947, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who worked on Mount Rushmore, began sculpting, and has been a work in progress ever since.

Located in South Dakota’s Black Hills, just a short drive from Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial can be seen from miles away. You can clearly make out the well-defined and detailed face, while the arm is what’s currently being carved at the moment. And it’s monumental, literally. To give you a point of reference, the Mount Rushmore faces are 60 feet tall, while Crazy Horse’s face is 87 feet tall. While you can simply visit the Crazy Horse Memorial and view the sculpture from a distance, I’d recommend the 30-minute bus tour, or for something even more unique and intimate, the Crazy Horse face-to-face tour. It was surreal standing face-to-face with Crazy Horse, noting the detail and craftsmanship of it, all while overlooking the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota.

While it does require a minimum $125 “gift” per person (the Crazy Horse Memorial receives no state or federal funding), it’s something you can’t experience at the likes of Mount Rushmore or Stone Mountain. The history and stature of both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse make South Dakota’s Black Hills unlike any other mountainous region of the U.S.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park may just be the coolest state park I’ve ever visited. First, and perhaps foremost, Custer State Park has more than 1,000 free roaming bison, many of which you’re likely to find along the Wildlife Loop Road. Unsure if I’d see another one, I took as many photographs as possible of the first bison I saw, interestingly enough, eating grass near a campground restroom. Over the next hour, I’d see more than 100 American bison. That’s without mentioning the number of pronghorns, elk, and prairie dogs I also saw. Was this Africa or South Dakota?

But wait, there’s more! Even more mesmerizing than seeing wildlife I can’t just see every day, was driving the Needles Highway, one of the single most beautiful drives I’ve ever done. While just 14 miles in length, it features some of the most dramatic highway features I’ve ever seen, from natural rock tunnels that one car can barely fit through to large needle-like (hence the name) rock spires rising above both sides of the road to sharp turns overlooking the Black Hills. This was the most surprising part of my entire trip, and the highlight of my South Dakota bucket list trip.

Badlands National Park

That was the highlight of my South Dakota trip until I got a call while doing a beer tasting in Hill City from my South Dakota friend, Katlyn, who urged me to finish my beer and drive the 80 miles to Wall, South Dakota. What happened next was such a blur. One moment I’m shaking the hands of the mayor, and next moment I’m flying in a two-seater prop plane over the Cheyenne River and Badlands National Park. It’s one thing to fly in a plane, it’s one thing to fly in a plane over a national park, but it’s whole other thing flying over one of America’s most beautiful national parks in a prop plane with the window open. All in the span of a few minutes we were flying over roaming buffalo and antelopes in the prairie, before flying over the dramatic, craggy peaks of Badlands National Park, all the while the sun started to set over South Dakota. If you ever have the chance to fly over South Dakota’s one-of-a-kind landscapes, do it.

The next day saw me experiencing what I had seen the previous day by air, by land. I entered Badlands National Park near the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, where yet again I was greeted by roaming bison, pronghorn, and prairie dogs. The terrain and landscape was so starkly beautiful, kind of like a Grand Canyon of South Dakota, but with more wildlife. One of my favorite views was seeing bison grazing mere feet from me, while behind it were steep drop-offs and dramatic rocky peaks further afield. Though a national park, it often felt like I had the entire place to myself.

My South Dakota bucket list trip by the numbers: 72 hours, 200-plus buffalo, 100-plus prairie dogs, 8 craft beer samples, several tunnels, 2 of the world’s largest mountain carvings, and 1 prop-plane flight over a national park. Now that’s how you South Dakota (yes, I just used South Dakota as a verb).

What's on your U.S. bucket list?