South Dakota Surprises

Magestic Elk in Wind Cave National Park. Photo Courtesy of Travel South Dakota
Magestic Elk in Wind Cave National Park. Photo Courtesy of Travel South Dakota

From Badlands to Black Hills: South Dakota’s Natural Wonders

By Sharon Kurtz
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

In the heartland of America, South Dakota emerges as a well-kept secret.

I first went to South Dakota in 2015. I had an assignment to lead a women’s tour, and I thought— South Dakota? Why would anyone want to go to South Dakota? I quickly learned that, like many, I didn’t know how great it was.

Last year 14 million visitors came to the South Dakota, putting it in the middle of the pack, unlike its neighbor North Dakota that ranks close to the bottom of yearly visitors. But the point it, it’s being discovered more every year.

The Window Trail in Badlands National Park. Photo Courtesy of Travel South D
The Window Trail in Badlands National Park. Photo Courtesy of Travel South D

Beyond Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument, South Dakota’s appeal extends far past these monumental granite sculptures. Shaped by the rich heritage of indigenous tribes, South Dakota’s geological narrative unfolds, tracing the evolution from prairies teeming with buffalo to the Black Hills’ majestic stone spires etched by the effects of wind and water.

Pronghorn Antelope are considered to be the fastest land animal in North America at Custer State Park. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/ Flickr
Pronghorn Antelope are considered to be the fastest land animal in North America at Custer State Park. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/ Flickr

I happily agreed when I was asked to lead the tour again this summer.

Native Peoples and the Transition to Statehood

South Dakota was inhabited by Native American tribes—the Dakota and Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Their rich cultures became part of the fertile soil, leaving a lasting mark on the landscape. In the late 1800s, the U.S. promoted homesteading, which sparked conflicts between the settlers and native tribes.

South Dakota joined the U.S. on November 2, 1889. In 1890, the U.S. Government tried to intervene in the dispute, leading to the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. The Army killed over 200 Lakota Sioux, marking a dark chapter in Badlands history.

Unique Geology of Badlands National Park. Photo Courtesy of Travel South Dakota
Unique Geology of Badlands National Park. Photo Courtesy of Travel South Dakota

Badlands National Park: Fierce Beauty

Badlands National Park sprawls like a rugged canvas in western South Dakota, with carved canyons and towering spires defining its stark beauty. Once known as “Mako Sica” by the Lakota, which translates to “land bad.”President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Badlands National Monument in 1939 and gained National Park Status in 1978.

As we drove into the Park, I couldn’t help but marvel at its stark and barren beauty. With layers of rock formations, carved canyons, and towering spires, it felt like stepping onto the moon, a landscape shaped by 11,000 years of history.

Ranger Don Frankfort and fellow Rangers at Wind Cave National Park. Photo by Sharon Kurtz
Ranger Don Frankfort and fellow Rangers at Wind Cave National Park. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for a ranger talk and learn more about the Badland’s geology. He shared that his first question is, “How did this get here?” The answer is long and complicated but includes eons of time, dinosaurs, and tectonic plate shifts.

The Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway and trails like Door and Castle provide different perspectives and levels of difficulty, offering vistas of prairie grass fields and rocky pinnacles. Watch for the possibility of encountering bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and the occasional rattlesnake.

Beyond its physical beauty, Badlands National Park is working through its application to become an International Dark Sky Park offering stunning stargazing opportunitiesVisitors can witness constellations, the Milky Way, and occasional shooting stars. The Park’s commitment extends to an annual astronomy festival, uniting scientists, astronomers, educators, and park visitors for a stellar experience.

Badlands National Park offers two established campgrounds and other camping options outside the Park within a short drive.

Wind Cave National Park

Established in 1903, Wind Cave, one of the world’s most extended cave systems, was the first national park cave, courtesy of President Theodore Roosevelt. Encompassing more than 30,000 acres in the southwest part of the state, it provides a haven for diverse wildlife on the Park’s hiking trails, allowing wildlife enthusiasts to observe bison, prairie dogs, and more in their natural habitat.

Discovered in 1881 by Jesse and Tom Bingham, the cave stretches over 150 miles and is recognized as one of the world’s oldest. Its name originates from the forceful wind at the entrance, and it’s renowned for its intricate boxwork formations and expansive chambers.

Ranger Don Frankfort starting his tour at Wind Cave National Park. Photo by Sharon Kurtz
Ranger Don Frankfort starting his tour at Wind Cave National Park. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Exploring Wind Cave with Ranger-Interpreter Don Frankfort, who boasts 55 years of experience in the Park, offered a close-up view of its geological marvels. As we walked single file through the dimly lit narrow corridors into vast open areas, he shared “”The limestone here formed in an ocean made up of the shells of little animals.

Layer upon layer eventually was squeezed and compressed, broken up into small fragments cemented with calcium carbonate to make a rock limestone.” He continued to tell how the cave came to be and the role of the National Park Service in keeping it natural and unchanged for future generations.

Wind Cave National Park offers guided tours. Photo by Sharon Kurtz
Wind Cave National Park offers guided tours. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

The cave maintains an average temperature of around 53 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The steps may be damp, with water dripping, so wearing a jacket and sturdy, slip-resistant shoes is recommended.

When Ranger Don turned off the lights, plunging us into pure darkness, it was a fun and memorable experience, especially for the young adventurers. Ranger Don: “The cave is very delicate; don’t touch anything: take only memories, leave only footprints”.

Local Todd Mohr shared the history of Moccasin Springs. Photo by Sharon Kurtz
Local Todd Mohr shared the history of Moccasin Springs. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Sublime Soaking in a Historical Oasis

Once a bustling resort town, Hot Springs holds echoes of its heyday with numerous bathhouses and luxurious hotels catering to seekers of warm springs’ rejuvenation. Moccasin Springs stands out as a historical gem with a 125-year legacy, renowned for its therapeutic hot springs.

With roots deeply embedded in Native American history, the natural hot springs were revered for their healing and spiritual properties. Over the years, various tribes congregated at this sacred gathering place to soak in the waters and benefit from their natural healing properties.

Moccasin Springs offers day passes to take in natural spring waters. Photo by Sharon Kurtz
Moccasin Springs offers day passes to take in natural spring waters. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Named after its warm mineral spring in Minnekahta Valley, Moccasin Springs carries a rich history. Established in 1890, the Minnekahta Bath House and Hot Springs Hotel flourished until the late 1930s, when fire claimed the hotel, and maintenance issues shuttered the bathhouse in the late 40s.

After lying dormant for decades, the property was revitalized in 2014. The new owner, Kara Hagen, revived Moccasin Springs Natural Mineral Spa on the historic site. Constructed atop the 1890 Hot Springs Hotel ruins, the spa reserved the original architecture and honors its Native American roots. Visitors now enjoy therapeutic experiences with earth-warmed waters, embracing the spa’s rich history.

Minnekahta Bath House in the early 1900s. Photo Public Domain.
Minnekahta Bath House in the early 1900s. Photo Public Domain.

I stayed on for a few days after my tour ended, and I enjoyed a mineral bath during a morning summer visit. Moccasin Springs oozed serenity, with diverse groups quietly enjoying the warm mineral waters. A local resident, Todd Mohr, described the experience as “almost spiritual,” emphasizing its hidden gem quality.

Todd and his wife, Vicky, frequently come to enjoy the waters, and he shared that Moccasin Springs is their favorite place to go. A dual Hot Springs and Fort Collins resident for the past one and a half years, Todd shared, “We’ve been looking for a space to start our next forever place – we just settled here. The people are phenomenal, and the environment is amazing with spectacular views.” he went on to say, “It’s natural, and many people don’t know it’s here.”

He emphasized the unique properties of the minerals in the water, “These rocks have been in this water for a long time. When I leave here, I will feel this experience all day; it just works if you let it.”

Needles Granite Formations in Custer State Park. Photo Courtesy of Travel South Dakota
Needles Granite Formations in Custer State Park. Photo Courtesy of Travel South Dakota

Tunnels, Spires, and Buffalo in Custer State Park

In the heart of the Black Hills, Custer State Park unfolds a rich history. The State Game Lodge, a rustic retreat of stone and wood, sits in the southeastern part of the Park along the scenic Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.

The Lodge is recognized for its historical character and traditions. It served as the summer White House for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927, hosting 80 staff members. Its walls echo tales of presidents and eager visitors—reserve early; it’s very popular.

Granite Spires in Custer State Park. Photo Courtesy of Travel South Dakota
Granite Spires in Custer State Park. Photo Courtesy of Travel South Dakota

The pinnacle of my journey unfolded on the Needles Highway. Winding through the Black Hills, it revealed breathtaking granite spires aptly named “the Needles.” Narrow tunnels and hairpin turns showcased engineering marvels and nature’s beauty. Passing through the Needle’s Eye Tunnel, doubting I’d make it, I held my breath with inches to spare.

Sylvan Lake Panorama. Photo Courtesy of Travel South Dakota
Sylvan Lake Panorama. Photo Courtesy of Travel South Dakota

The Sylvan Lake Lodge is a stunning resort at the Park’s northwest corner, with lodge rooms and scenic views. At 6,145 feet, nearby Sylvan Lake glittered in the afternoon sun with its clear azure waters. The granite cliffs and forested hills, with hiking paths, offer a tranquil haven for nature enthusiasts.

Buffalo Safari in Custer State Park Photo Courtesy of Travel South Dakota
Buffalo Safari in Custer State Park Photo Courtesy of Travel South Dakota

Custer State Park’s true distinction lies in its iconic buffalo, the freely roaming herd estimated between 1200 and 1500. One of the most popular experiences at Custer State Park is the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours. They depart from the Creek Side Lodge in the Park from April to October. The guide/driver takes visitors into the Park for a couple of hours and looks for buffalo and other wildlife.

Our guide & group on the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour © Sharon Kurtz
Our guide Leslie Knapp and our group on the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour © Sharon Kurtz

Open-air jeep tours are fun and provide a unique and thrilling way to see the bison off-road and up close. Our guide shared fascinating information about the buffalo. When she takes visitors out, she never knows if they will find buffalo but always spots wildlife. Since we were there in early June, we saw many mothers with new calves, nicknamed Red Dogs.

Buffalo with their young, called red dogs, roaming in Custer State Park. Photo Sharon Kurtz
Buffalo with their young, called red dogs, roaming in Custer State Park. Photo Sharon Kurtz

Our guide asked us to keep all our body parts in the jeep, not reaching out or trying to touch a buffalo. We got close enough to a fence so I could grab a handful of buffalo fur—the undercoat was surprisingly soft.

Photo Op on Buffalo Jeep Safari in Custer State Park. Photo by Sharon Kurtz
Photo Op on Buffalo Jeep Safari in Custer State Park. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Custer was a Mining Town

Custer is a resilient town forged by the furnace of South Dakota’s mining heritage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The town was named in honor of Colonel George Armstrong Custer, a Civil War hero who later played a role in the Black Hills Expedition of 1874. This expedition led to the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, which ultimately contributed to the Black Hills Gold Rush.

The area was rich in gold, silver, and tin minerals. This attracted many prospectors and miners to the area, resulting in the establishment of numerous mines.

Mining activity in Custer has significantly declined in recent years. While there may still be some small-scale mining operations, the economy of Custer is primarily driven by tourism.

Its proximity to state landmarks like Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monument attracts tourists and contributes to its prosperity. This lively community boasts local shopping, sightseeing, and exceptional dining experiences.

A standout experience during my Custer visit was an evening at Skogen Kitchen, a culinary gem showcasing Chef Joseph Raney’s innovative dishes that highlight regional flavors.

The Tourism Board representative worked magic to get a reservation for me; in the summer season, they are booked weeks in advance. I was lucky to be seated beside delightful dining companions, Craig and Kathy Woloshyn.

State Game Lodge in Custer State Park. Photo by Sharon Kurtz
State Game Lodge in Custer State Park. Photo by Sharon Kurtz
Chef Joseph Raney and diner Craig Woloshyn at Skogen Kitchen in Custer. Photo by Sharon Kurtz
Chef Joseph Raney and diner Craig Woloshyn at Skogen Kitchen in Custer. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Craig and Kathy, who divide their time between Custer and Florida, shared that Skogen Kitchen holds a special place in their hearts.

They appreciate not just the delicious cuisine but also the warm, familial atmosphere of the restaurant. It’s more than just a dining spot for them; it’s become an integral part of their Custer experience, adding a meaningful layer to their seasonal stays.

Chef Raney, a 2023 James Beard Award semi-finalist, brings a global perspective to his creations, skillfully blending flavors from around the world to craft a distinctive Black Hills dining experience.

Co-owners Joseph and Eliza relocated from Southern California. They opened Skogen Kitchen to share their culinary expertise with Custer, aspiring to introduce diverse flavors to the community.

My entree at Skogen Kitchen was beautifully presented, and delicious. Photo by Sharon Kurtz
My entree at Skogen Kitchen was beautifully presented, and delicious. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

I asked Chef Raney about his favorite aspect of owning a restaurant. He shared, ” I thought the cooking part would be fun, but it’s actually figuring out the human element. How to make guests feel comfortable, but these last couple years, we’ve learned you want the staff to feel as comfortable as the guests.”

The Purple Pie Place is the place to be in Custer. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Flickr.
The Purple Pie Place is the place to be in Custer. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Flickr.

When I extended my congratulations on his James Beard nomination, Chef Ramey admitted, “I was pretty surprised. In California, I worked in places with James Beard accolades and Michelin stars and all that stuff. But I forgot about it when I moved here.

I didn’t think anybody would come up to Custer and find us. And when it happened, it was amazing.” Now that Skogen Kitchen has been found out call well in advance for a reservation. I promise it’s worth it.

Homemade Strawberry Rhubarb Pie the Purple Pie Place. Photo by Sharon Kurtz
Homemade Strawberry Rhubarb Pie the Purple Pie Place. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Along Mt. Rushmore Road, the unmissable Purple Pie Place is a fixture for the summer and fall. Celebrated for serving Custer’s finest homemade pies, it’s a sweet stop within this historic town.

Their made-from-scratch selection includes favorites like Rhubarb, Cherry, and Apple. My choice was strawberry rhubarb with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Sharon’s visit to South Dakota was hosted by Travel South Dakota, but all of the opinions are her own.

Go to Travel South Dakota for more information.

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One thought on “South Dakota Surprises

  1. Interesting! I think I’d want to re-watch Ken Burn’s documentary on the Buffalo before traveling to South Dakota.

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