Natural vistas and monumental art await in this region rich with Native American and Old West history.

By Elaine Glusac
May 14, 2009

The mountains of western South Dakota are so densely covered in evergreens that the native Lakota named them paha sapa (“hills that are black”). Like Alaska, the Black Hills have preserved a quintessential―and mostly vanished―American landscape. Only here, it’s the Great Plains, where wild buffalo still roam. From hikes amid granite spires to wildlife watches on the prairie for pronghorn antelope and prairie dogs, the Black Hills are all about the outdoors. Even its iconic attractions―Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monument―are art for landscape lovers.

Eat Smart: Just as Alaska’s salmon aren’t limited to trophy anglers, South Dakota’s buffalo and elk aren’t just for picture-snappers. You’ll find them on menus throughout the region. For the hands-down best elk burger, grab a table at Sage Creek Grill (605-673-2424) in Custer. Toast your trip in Rapid City with a meal at Corn Exchange, where celebrated chef MJ Adams gives local ingredients an upscale spin in dishes like pan-roasted quail and buffalo Bolognese pasta.

Be Fit: As in Alaska, hiking is the best way to soak in the Black Hills scenery. In Custer State Park traverse the 1.5-mile Cathedral Spires Trail past towering granite columns and Ponderosa pine. Scramble up the boulder pile at trail’s end for best views of the mountain vista. Harney Peak, the highest elevation in the state at 7,242 feet, is a serious but exhilarating 6.5-mile round-trip hike through the Black Hills National Forest from Sylvan Lake.

Explore another of the Black Hills signature trails by bike. Mickelson Trail runs 114 miles from Deadwood south to Edgemont over 100 former railroad bridges and through four tunnels. Get rentals―and shuttles back―at Mickelson Trail Adventures in Hill City.

Live Well: More than simply patriotic icons, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial are testaments to the imagination of sculptors who think big. The still-under-construction Lakota warrior is the Native American rebuttal to Rushmore’s presidential shrine, and its visitor’s center offers a look at tribal history as well as demonstrations of beadwork and carving.

On the other end of the culture spectrum, honky tonk Deadwood a former gold mining town, hosts such historic sites as Saloon #10, where legendary gambler Wild Bill Hickok was shot at the poker table, and the Mount Moriah Cemetery, where both Hickok and frontier character Calamity Jane are buried.

Where to Stay: Stay overnight in the 71,000-acre Custer State Park, which hosts four unique resorts including the State Game Lodge, President Calvin Coolidge’s “Summer White House.” Built of native stone and timber, the park’s Sylvan Lake Lodge offers standard hotel rooms as well as rustic, stand-alone cabins that come stocked with firewood. There’s no A.C., but there are fireplaces in the one-room cabins, plus trails that head directly down to Sylvan Lake and the colossal granite boulders―ideal for climbing―that dam one end.