Ah, the Fourth of July. Barbecues, fireworks, good company, and good times. Now that we’re working wonderful full time jobs that grant holidays, the Fourth also happens to be a long weekend, which got Ryan and I to thinking of taking a road trip… After a quick google search, we learned that Mount Rushmore National Monument is less than a six hours drive from home. What could possibly be more American that visiting the impressive sculptures of our most influential presidents on the Independence Day of our wonderful country?
We quickly began planning our road trip; we would leave early on Friday morning and return on Sunday evening, giving us three days and two nights in South Dakota. Neither of us have ever been to the Black Hills, and as the sun rose ahead of us we were in awe to the beauty surrounding us. Long, open roads surrounded by grassy rolling hills for as far as the eye could see. We had the jitters with anticipation of what the rest of our trip would hold.
It took us almost exactly five hours for us to reach Wind Cave National Park. We were SO excited to finally be able to get out of the car. We drove around the park for a while (it isn’t very big), walked a few of the scenic loops that were only about 1mi each, and explored the visitor center before continuing on to Hot Springs, SD for lunch. While the park was a breath of fresh air with its expansive green hills and wildflowers, we did not want to spend the time or money on the actual cave tours so I do not feel like we got the full experience of the park. However, hunger called and we needed to answer.
Once we finished lunch, it was late in the afternoon and we were ready to go check in to our “hotel” for the weekend (aka the Forest Service’s Oreville Campground) which was conveniently located between Custer and Hill City (which offered a nice view of Crazy Horse Memorial from the road). Lush, shaded campsites with a friendly camp host and quiet neighbors helped us settle in quickly to our spot. We unpacked, opened up some beer, and relaxed until we were ready for dinner. We headed to Hill City to the Bumpin’ Buffalo Bar & Grill for dinner, and were pleased with their generous potations and tasty sangria. Once the sun had set over our table on their patio, we headed back to camp to get some rest before the next day’s adventure to Custer State Park.
We started our day with a stop at Sylvan Lake, located at the entrance of Custer State Park. We parked and took a nice walk on the paved path around the lake, taking in the scenery and enjoying the calm early morning. There were several fishing spots along the path, making Ryan long for his pole to catch the stocked trout.
Once we had our fill of the lake and surrounding scenery, we started towards Needles Highway. It was a blast driving through the narrow tunnels that could only fit a single car at a time, which had been meticulously carved into the towering needle rock formations. As if these tunnels were not fun enough in themselves, they also lead to spectacular views of the cliffs, forests, and great plains that make up the Black Hills. The road had quite a bit of traffic on it, which was most likely due to the line of cars waiting their turn through the tunnels, but the experience was not hindered in any way.
Needles Highway then turned into the Wildlife Loop, taking us through the entirety of Custer State Park. All I can say is WOW!. Ryan and I were blown away at the beauty of South Dakota. The sun was shining, the hills were rolling, and the wildlife was abundant. It was an absolutely beautiful day, and we pulled over several times to take a short (1mi) scenic hike or to just soak in our surroundings and do my best to capture it with my camera. While photos cannot do it justice to those who have not been before, it still brings happy memories and fills my heart to look at them.
While the scenery was breathtaking, the favorite part of my trip was the abundance of wildlife. We saw bison, antelope, deer, and donkeys! While the antelope and deer were pretty skittish and could only be enjoyed while driving by, the bison were relaxed in the afternoon heat as they moseyed across the road, creating a traffic jam in the process. Once we made it through the herd, we then came across the “wild” donkeys where people were feeding them white bread and carrots– those guys sure get pushy when you have what they want! Ryan and I just enjoyed petting them and staying by the adorable foals.
We ended the day with a true Custer, SD celebration of the Fourth of July; food, drinks, and fireworks. It was a lovely evening spent in the town and they put on a spectacular firework show, but we headed back to camp before it got too late so that we would have enough rest for our final day in South Dakota and our drive back home to Colorado.
We got an early start and arrived at Mount Rushmore around 8am to beat the crowds. We were pleasantly surprised to find the monument mostly empty! We spent a good hour or two exploring the Presidential Trail, historic building/exhibit, and gift shop. We learned a lot and were in awe at the spectacular sculptures towering above us. I would highly recommend adding Mount Rushmore to your road trip itinerary; it is worth the trip. The rich history combined with the sheer beauty of the monument is enough to peak anyone’s interest.
Three days, 1,500+ miles, and two new states later.. our Fourth of July road trip was complete. As we sped down the open highways with nothing but the green plains, wildflower-ridden hillsides, and the Black Hills in the distance, we were sad to be going home but knew that we would return.