Do you ever dream about adventuring to places without a lot of people? Do you wish you could have lived in the days of the Wild West and wandered into a dusty hot saloon during happy hour to drink a shot of whiskey with “Wild Bill Hickok”? One of my best friends and I decided to venture on a long weekend trip to South Dakota towards the end of August. This was a perfect time of year to go because most of the kids had started back to school so the crowds were light and flights inexpensive.
We flew into Rapid City and made our base camp stay at the Historic Hotel Alex Johnson in Downtown, Rapid City. I highly recommend staying here because there are several nice restaurants, a Starbucks, and many pubs close by the hotel. After hiking all day, it’s nice to be able to park the car and walk around town. The hotel also gives plenty of historical tribute to the Wild West and to the local Native Americans from the Black Hills area.
Legend has it that this hotel is one of the most haunted hotels in South Dakota. The show ‘Ghost Hunters’ from the SyFy channel filmed a few episodes here. One particular room, 821, is known for its haunting stories of a young bride in the 70’s committing suicide by throwing herself out the window. She has been known to roam the halls on the 8th floor. The Hotel is happy to book this room or floor for you but we needed our sleep for the long hiking days planned and decided against unwanted visitors.
We stayed on the 6th floor with no issues or worries. The staff will happily give you a tour of the hotel with some interesting stories if you have the time.
While in town, we chose to go on the Rapid City Scavenger Hunt to find all the U.S. president statues. We picked up a scavenger hunt map from one of the local downtown visitor centers to help us find the 44 statues. (The visitor centers are opened June 1-Oct 1 noon-9:00 pm). You can also download it at www.downtownrapidcity.com.
Finding all these presidents, taking photos with them, and enjoying reading the history about each is a fun thing to do. It would probably take a few hours to find and see each one but we enjoyed the stroll and broke the searches into 3 evenings. It doesn’t get dark early in the summer and it gave us something to do in the evenings, after a nice dinner, and before bed-time.
The Badlands National Park is an hour from the hotel and the park gets extremely hot (up to 116 degrees) quickly in the summer so hiking early is always a wise thing to do in August. The trails we went on had very little shade and the area was extremely dry with desert-like conditions.
Gypsy Mama Bear tip- Wear high top boots because of rattle snakes and take PLENTY of water. We actually thought we had enough water but we should have taken more… TAKE more than you think you will need!
Our first hike was Notch trail and It was my favorite one in the Badlands. It is a 1.3 moderate hike that is heavily trafficked. There’s a bit of gain at the start of the trail and you have a steep wooden ladder that rests on cables that you must climb. The ladder did move around a bit in places so be careful with your footing and climbing. Once you get past the ladder the trail is easy, there are a few steep ledges, but you have nice views and a waterfall at the top.
Our second hike in the park was called Medicine Root Loop trail. It was a flat easy 4.5 mile trail. The All Trails map did show that it was heavily trafficked but we did not see many people on this trail at all and it was not well marked, so download the trail map before you start in case your GPS does not work.
We chose this trail because we read where “Dances with the Wolves” movie was filmed near here and we are big fans of Kevin Costner. The terrain did remind us of the movie scenes and the park is exactly how I envisioned… beautiful, wild and rugged. American Indians used this area for 11,000 years as hunting grounds. I’m a huge fan of Native American history. After walking on this terrain, I’m amazed at how they could endure such extreme summer and winter temperatures. Despite the many obstacles they amazingly survived, for many years they have been able to keep so many amazing rich native traditions alive as seen in this Hollywood movie.
We had a little bonus seeing several prairie dogs on our drive out of the park. These little guys were everywhere and they were not scared of seeing us.
Gypsy Mama Bear Tip: Whenever I’m going on an adventure, I always try to pack some snacks. Check out these great protein bars! Only 110 calories, low sugar and 15 grams of protein! Tap on Affiliate link/photo.
We decided to make a pit stop before our next destination. We had heard a lot about the infamous Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota that had been opened since the 1930s. We wanted to check out the cowboy boots and have a margarita at the Cactus Café and Lounge. The cowboy boots were adorable and there were plenty of colors and styles to choose from. We definitely needed a second wind from the hike and ventured across the street to the cute cowboy bar. The bartender was extremely friendly and told us that this was a slow time of year for them because summer was winding down. He gave us a recommendation of his favorite hike and told us where it was in Custer State Park.
Custer State Park was little over an hour’s drive from Wall Drug Store. The Park is 71,000 acres and is home to one of the world’s largest bison herds. We were super excited to find the bartenders recommendation, Lovers Leap Trail! It is a moderate 4.2 mile loop that begins with a steep ascent and follows a ridge line.
The highest point on the trail is of course Lovers Leap. We crossed several creeks, saw several snakes, deer, and mountain goats. The views were beautiful on top of Lovers Leap and the scenery changed often on this trail so it kept things interesting. As we were hiking down the mountain and leaving, we saw a lovely wedding being performed in the pavilion. It was quite romantic for the couple to be married at Lovers Leap!
Wildlife alert: The best finale happened on our drive home, we saw a giant wild buffalo roaming and enjoying the lush green grass in the park!
Gypsy Mama Bear tip: Wild West lovers? Plan your trip the last Friday in September so you can attend the annual buffalo roundup!! Be prepared to feel the ground shake and rumble as these buffalo are herded by experienced cowboys and cowgirls!
The next day I had to see Mount Rushmore National Memorial! This is a great place to go without having to walk very far if you want to see the presidents. The monument of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln can easily be seen from the visitors center and parking lot but if you want better views, take the loop trail from the parking lot.
We walked the Presidential trail loop which is an easy .9 mile walk with about 420 stairs. It has many resting platforms if you need to take your time with the stairs. This trail leads to many photo opportunities from several different angles so you will not want to miss this loop trail. We listened to a few historical stories told by staff members near the bookstore but overall we did not spend a great deal of time there. We had a lot of daylight left and plenty of time to venture on to see the Crazy Horse Memorial.
Gypsy Mama Bear tip: There is a $10. parking fee for private passenger vehicles at Mt. Rushmore. Age 62 and older, is $5.00. The National Park Pass cannot be used for parking fees.
Crazy Horse Memorial is a 17 mile drive from Mount Rushmore and it is located on privately held land in the Black Hills. The monument has been under construction since 1948. When the monument is completed it will be an amazing 563 ft tall. There is a stunning statue model of the planned sculpture which is impressive to see. The history of Crazy Horse is very interesting to learn about and we watched a Lakota family perform a traditional dance while we were there. The trail to the construction site was not open to the public and we did not see hiking trails in this area. Even though this monument will not be completed for many years, it is a must see!
There is a restaurant on the Crazy horse site called the Laughing Water Restaurant if you want to have lunch with a nice view. We chose to dine back in Custer, SD at the Sage Creek Grille. The menu had plenty of vegetarian lunch options as well as delicious buffalo burgers. The staff was extremely friendly and the service was wonderful.
Our third day we started out early because we had an 1 hour-45 minute drive to Devil’s Tower National Monument, WY! We had a full fun day planned with additional stops in the Wild Wild West cities of Deadwood and Sturgis for our drive back. I was psyched to be in total wanderlust bucket-list heaven today!
We had to watch Steven’s Speilberg’s movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” again so we could see for ourselves this alien landing site. Not only did this unusual rock formation have past Alien Hollywood lore, native legend explained that the giant rock was formed by giant bears clawing at a mountain to reach a princess on the summit. I would have loved to see how the princess made it to the summit because we did see a few rock climbers attempting to make it to the top of the tower. It takes about 4-6 hours of pure endurance and strength to make it to the top of this massive 867 ft tall igneous rock and about 2 hours to rappel down. About 5000-6000 climbers come to Devils Tower each year to climb this amazing formation.
We decided not to make a new legend by killing ourselves trying to climb to the top of the formation to find the princess. Instead, we chose to hike the nice easy 1.3 mile paved Devils Tower Trail that looped around this beautiful giant green monster rock formation. The Native Indians regard the tower and the grounds as sacred and we really enjoyed seeing the colorful handmade prayer cloths tied to the trees. After seeing the lovely rolling hill scenery for miles and miles, I too could easily see why something so beautiful would be considered sacred.
Gypsy tip: Take binoculars so you can sit on one of the park benches to watch the rock climbers amazing strength and agility.
Since we left early we had plenty of time to get to Deadwood, SD . This Wild Wild West historic town was hopping with live music, cool classic cars, and live reenactments of gunslingers on main street and in the saloons.
I got to personally meet Jack McCall and Wild Bill Hickok and I witnessed the character’s poker game and shoot out at the Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon on Mainstreet! The best part of this story was there was a nice hidden upstairs restaurant over this Wild West Bar. We were able to dine outside and listen to a great Tom Petty cover band while enjoying a wonderful salad and glass of wine.
We needed a little more exercise and we discovered a great trail close to Deadwood called Mount Roosevelt. It’s a 2.9 mile easy/moderate loop trail that included a friendship tower that you can climb to the top to see the fantastic views. Be sure to also take the short trail behind the tower, it will lead you to a stunning overlook with views all the way to North Dakota..
All things must come to an end…. Our last stop had to be Sturgis, SD, home of the annual motorcycle rally. It seemed like a quiet, peaceful, little town on this late Sunday evening. We ventured into the Sturgis Saloon and also the Knuckle Brewing company for a Porter and Imperial Stout taster. This last stop truly made us feel like real rebels on a long winding highway looking for an adventure..
We said our goodbyes to an amazing Wild West road trip as we hopped into our little rental car instead of on the back of an Easy Rider Harley…Dreaming about another trip and another time….
I would love to hear about your bucket list special journeys, email us below and let us know what warms your heart when you travel.
The Lord loves righteousness and justice, the earth is full of his unfailing love. Psalm 33:5
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