What's New In South Dakota

Sitting on the rim of a canyon in Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

Sleeping with Buffalo: A Trip Through South Dakota and All That's New

By Luke Dowley

Dust kicked up through the windows of our crammed Honda Element as we wound down an obscure single-lane road shaded by surrounding pine trees.  Fifteen-hundred miles after departing from Boston we had found ourselves in the middle of South Dakota, tired of driving, dirty from hiking, and ready to set up camp.

When I had imagined the classic American road trip in years past I will admit, the state of South Dakota hadn’t came to mind as a place that would be a highlight of the journey. The four of us were old friends from high school, born and raised in the city, who had decided to spend the summer discovering the beautiful wilderness that this country had to offer.  Since this journey many new and exciting things to do and visit have popped up in South Dakota, making it the perfect place for your next American adventure.

Buffalo roam many of South Dakota's state and national parks
Buffalo roam many of South Dakota's state and national parks

As we rounded bend after bend, each revealing one dramatic mountainous display after the other, I knew that this place was exactly what we had been looking for.

We had just entered Custer State Park, and with the sun fading we knew we needed to set up camp soon if we wanted to do so with even the slightest bit of daylight. Our campground reservations had been made a week prior, and no one could definitively remember where in the park we were supposed to go.

When a wooden sign signaling a campground appeared to our right we decided to just call it day.  It was now completely dark and, with no clear building in sight to check in, we pulled into a clearing and set up our tent.  Under a canopy of stars we stretched out, relived to have finally escaped the confines of the car and excited for the adventures we knew were to come.

It is impossible to describe the noise that woke us up that morning.  A grunting, somewhere between a hungry pig and idling motor seemed to be coming from all sides of the tent, mixed in with heavy thumping rustling.  Inside my sleeping bag felt very safe, but I needed to know what was out there.  After deliberation, we decided we would all exit the tent at once, with the thought that we could make it in a dash to an RV we knew lay about a hundred feet to the left.  The adrenaline was pumping.  It was game time.

“Are you kidding me?”

Buffalo.  We were surrounded by a herd of buffalo.  I couldn’t help but laugh, as thoughts of mountain lions and bears faded from my mind and were replaced with these large brown bearded beasts.

Buffalo are handsome creatures, the spitting image of the romanticized and untamed west.  Around 100 years ago they were pushed to the brink of extinction due to over hunting, however they have since survived and grown in population, protected by America’s many national parks.

Custer State Park has become famous for its herd of over 1300 buffalo, one of the largest publicly owned herds in the world.  Our makeshift campsite was positioned at the edge of a clearing where hundreds of buffalo were milling about, grunting, stomping, and eating.

This year, Custer State Park will be celebrating it’s 100th year of the buffalo returning to the area.  Although these buffalo can be visited at practically any time the park is open, the annual Buffalo Roundup is held on September 26th, and with over 14,000 guests becomes quite a spectacle.

A buffalo spotted outside our car window

After a brief talking-to by a park ranger, which transitioned from our questionable camping site to a dispute over who was better, the Red Sox or the Yankees, we carried on our day to explore the rest of the park.  Just twenty minutes away we found Mt. Rushmore, a site that despite the omni-present hoard of tourists is certainly worth a visit.

It wasn’t just the Custer State Park area that surprised us.  It seemed as though each location we stopped at in South Dakota exceeded our expectations beyond what we thought was possible.

Just a few days before we had visited Badlands National Park, a vast expanse of canyons and vertical rock formations extending across over three hundred square miles.  Stunning.  This year Badlands National Park will be celebrating its 75th Anniversary.

125 Years of Statehood

This year is a big year for South Dakota, as it is celebrating 125 years of statehood.  Communities across the state are celebrating year round with various festivals, historic hikes, and commemorative exhibits, many of which are listed at www.125.sd.gov .

Many new projects were launched this year in the on going preservation of South Dakota's beautiful landscape.  The River Greenway Project, which held its grand opening celebration in June, has helped restore the Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls, and includes an amphitheater, interactive water feature, and improved walking trails and bridges.

On June 15th 2014 the life-size sculpture installation of John Trumbull’s iconic “Deceleration of Independence” painting was unveiled.  As it just outside of Rapid City, the new building is very accessible, and has a resemblance to Philadelphia's Independence Hall.  Inside, visitors can learn how the American Revolution came to be, and get a chance to sign the Deceleration of Independence.

Opening in November 2014 is Rapid City's Memorial Park Promenade and Botanical Garden.  Whether just passing through the city, or visiting for an extended stay this new 40 foot wide path expands through the city, featuring beautiful light displays and garden arangements.  The Park is located between the downtown area and the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.
A rock-wall in Rippin Rapids Resort and Adventure Sports A rock-wall in Rippin Rapids Resort and Adventure Sports

For those looking for a more active excursion, Rippin Rapids Resort and Adventure Sports is set to open this year.  The attractions this three-dimensional resort will offer include water-slides, rock climbing, and a wave machine.  There will also be a connected 100-room hotel, making it a perfect escape for families with younger kids.

Another great destination for those traveling with kids is the WaTiki Indoor Waterpark found in Rapid City.  Set to be completed in time for the summer of 2015 the park is currently undergoing a 40,000 foot expansion.

The new features that this water adventure park will feature include a new wave pool producing towering four foot waves, as well as a swim up bar to escape to while the kids play.

My adventure through South Dakota, which lasted just under a week, exposed me to some of the most dramatic landscapes I have ever seen.  While I highly recommend stopping through every National and State park in the area, the many amenities and attractions offered in the cities should not be overlooked.

Additionally, South Dakota has many newly constructed and restored hotels such as the Adoba Hotel in Rapid City, and the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown in Sioux Falls, that will make every night visiting the state a comfortable one.

For more information about exploring South Dakota and all of the state’s new and exiting offerings for 2014 visit www.travelsd.com

Luke Dowley is a former editorial assistant for GoNOMAD.com and is currently entering his final year as an undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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