Hey there, fellow road trippers! Are you ready to dive into a world of unforgettable experiences in the heart of America? South Dakota is an often overlooked destination, but let me tell you, there’s no shortage of excitement and adventure for teens and young adults. In this guide, we’ll cover seven unique activities and attractions that will make your South Dakota trip a truly memorable one. So, pack your bags and let’s start exploring!
Headlamps on: Underground Adventures
Blast from the Past: Pan for Gold at Big Thunder Gold Mine
Have you ever wanted to travel back in time and experience the thrill of discovering gold? Big Thunder Gold Mine, located in Keystone, offers you just that opportunity! With a knowledgeable guide, you’ll explore the mine and learn about the history of gold mining in the Black Hills region. After your tour, put your new skills to the test as you pan for gold in the onsite panning area. Who knows, you might just strike it rich!
The fun doesn’t stop there, though. You can also do a claim panning adventure where you learn more legit techniques for gold panning versus just the tourist version. Big Thunder Gold Mine also features a museum where you can see authentic mining equipment and learn more about the gold rush era. The gift shop offers unique souvenirs and even gold nuggets to take home. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience you won’t want to miss.
Cavernous Wonders: Exploring Jewel Cave and Wind Cave
Get ready to venture underground and discover a hidden world of natural beauty. South Dakota is home to two of the longest caves in the world: Jewel Cave and Wind Cave. Both offer guided tours that will take you deep into the earth to explore the incredible formations that have been millions of years in the making.
While both caves are stunning, each offers a unique experience. Jewel Cave is known for its breathtaking calcite crystals, while Wind Cave boasts a complex network of boxwork formations rarely found elsewhere. Whether you’re a seasoned spelunker or a first-time caver, exploring these natural wonders is an experience you won’t want to miss.
The Unusual Underground: The Black Hills’ Wild Cave Tours
In the Black Hills, not all the sights are above ground. The Wild Cave Tours offered by the National Park Service take you deep beneath the surface into the mysterious world of Wind Cave. Unlike traditional cave tours, these excursions aren’t on paved paths with lighting. Instead, you’ll crawl, climb, and squeeze through narrow passages, discovering the cave’s hidden beauty in its rawest form.
This is an adventure like no other – it’s challenging, exciting, and a little bit weird. If you’re up for something different and aren’t afraid of getting dirty, the Wild Cave Tours are a must-do in the Black Hills.
Soaring High: Hot Air Balloon Rides Over the Black Hills
What to do in South Dakota if you’re looking for an adventure that takes your breath away? How about a hot air balloon ride soaring above the stunning Black Hills? Black Hills Balloons, based in Custer, offers daily sunrise flights that provide unbeatable views of the picturesque landscape.
Not only will you enjoy the tranquil beauty of the Black Hills from the sky, but you’ll also have the chance to spot wildlife such as deer, elk, and even bison roaming below. As you float along, the knowledgeable pilot will share interesting facts about the area and its history. Don’t forget your camera, as this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience you’ll want to remember forever!
Into the Wild: Camping at Custer State Park
For the nature enthusiasts among you, camping at Custer State Park is a must-do. This sprawling park offers a wide range of camping options, from rustic tent sites to comfortable cabins. You’ll be surrounded by the natural beauty of the Black Hills and might even see some of the park’s famous wildlife, including bison, antelope, and mountain goats.
Whether you choose to spend your days hiking the park’s many trails, fishing in one of its pristine lakes, or simply relaxing by the campfire, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy. And don’t forget to take advantage of the park’s guided nature programs for a chance to learn more about the local flora and fauna.
Into the Cosmos: Star Gazing at Badlands National Park
One of the hidden gems of the Black Hills area is the opportunity for some world-class stargazing. Badlands National Park offers some of the darkest skies in the region, making it an excellent spot to gaze upon the cosmos. The park even offers night sky viewing programs where park rangers guide you through the celestial wonders above.
Whether you’re an astronomy buff or just appreciate the simple beauty of a star-filled sky, spending a night under the stars in Badlands National Park is an experience not to be missed. Just remember to bring a blanket and your sense of wonder.
Traditional Attractions & Tourist Traps
Hey, you gotta get some of those in to get those pics snapped! Here are some traditional destinations you may want to sprinkle into your itinerary.
Iconic Landmarks: Mount Rushmore National Memorial
No trip to the Black Hills would be complete without a visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. This iconic landmark, featuring the sculpted faces of four U.S. presidents, is truly a sight to behold. During the day, you can explore the museum and hiking trails, while evenings offer a moving illumination ceremony.
Don’t forget to stop by the sculptor’s studio to learn about the incredible process of creating this monumental work of art. With so much to see and do, Mount Rushmore is more than just a quick photo op – it’s a full-day adventure!
A Taste of the Wild West: Deadwood
Step back in time in the historic town of Deadwood. Once a thriving gold rush town, Deadwood has been beautifully preserved and is now a National Historic Landmark. Spend a day walking the cobblestone streets, visiting historic buildings, and even trying your luck at one of the town’s casinos.
For an extra dose of excitement, don’t miss the town’s reenactments of Wild West shootouts. And if you’re a fan of history, be sure to visit Mount Moriah Cemetery, the final resting place of Wild West legends like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. A day in Deadwood is like stepping into a Western movie – full of excitement, history, and fun!
A Monument to Imagination: Cosmos Mystery Area
Who said all attractions need to make sense? The Cosmos Mystery Area in Rapid City is a place where the laws of physics seem to have gone haywire. Balls roll uphill, chairs balance on two legs, and people change height right before your eyes.
What’s the secret behind these strange phenomena? That’s for you to find out! A visit to the Cosmos Mystery Area will leave you scratching your head in wonder and amusement. It’s weird, it’s wacky, and it’s a whole lot of fun. Just remember to keep an open mind – anything is possible in the Cosmos!
Roadside Attraction: The Giant Dinosaur of Wall Drug Store
When you’re driving through the Black Hills, you might be surprised to come face to face with a giant dinosaur. This 80-foot-tall T-Rex is part of the famous Wall Drug Store, a unique roadside attraction that’s been entertaining travelers since the 1930s.
True story: I was never more grateful for Wall Drug then when were doing our first family roadtrip across South Dakota, ran over something and got not one but TWO flat tires. This was back when cell phones were just starting to become a thing (yes, I’m old) and thank god for that cell phone so that we could call and get help.
But the dinosaur isn’t the only oddity you’ll find at Wall Drug. Inside the store, you can check out a myriad of peculiarities, including a jackalope you can ride, a singing cowboy quartet, and a miniature Mount Rushmore. Oh, and don’t forget to enjoy a cup of their legendary free ice water and 5-cent coffee. A visit to Wall Drug is a delightful detour into the wonderfully weird side of South Dakota.
South Dakota might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of a vacation, but as you can see, this hidden gem has so much to offer. From gold panning and cowboy shows to caving and waterpark fun, there’s truly something for everyone. So what are you waiting for? Start planning your South Dakota adventure today!
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