Black Hills National Forest
The majority of the Black Hills lie within this 1875-sq-mile mixture of protected and logged forest, perforated by pockets of private land on most roads. The scenery is fantastic, whether you get deep into it on the 450 miles of hiking trails or drive the byways and gravel fire roads.
'No law at all in Deadwood, is that true?' So began the iconic HBO TV series. Today things have changed, although the 80 gambling halls big and small would no doubt put a sly grin on the faces of the hard characters who founded the town. Settled illegally by eager gold rushers in the 1870s, Deadwood is now a National Historic Landmark.
Badlands National Park
This otherworldly landscape, oddly softened by its fantastic rainbow hues, is a spectacle of sheer walls and spikes stabbing the dry air. It was understandably named mako sica (badland) by Native Americans. Looking over the bizarre formations from the corrugated walls surrounding Badlands is like seeing an ocean someone boiled dry.
Custer State Park
The only reason 111-sq-mile Custer State Park isn't a national park is that the state grabbed it first. It boasts one of the largest free-roaming bison herds in the world (about 1500), the famous 'begging burros' (donkeys seeking handouts) and more than 200 bird species.
Pierre (pronounced 'peer') is just too small (population 14,100) and ordinary to feel like a seat of power. Small-town Victorian homes overlook the imposing 1910 State Capitol with its black copper dome. The best reason to detour off I-90 here is because it lies along the Native American Scenic Byway and lonely, stark US 14.
Fast food, Christian iconography and billboards for glitzy biker bars featuring dolled-up models unlikely to ever be found on the back of a hog are just some of the cacophony of images of this tacky small town on I-90 (exits 30 and 32). Things get even louder for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, when around 500,000 riders, fans and curious onlookers take over the town.
This surprisingly attractive town, south of the main Black Hills circuit, boasts ornate 1890s red sandstone buildings and warm mineral springs feeding the Fall River. You can fill your water bottles at Kidney Springs, just south of the visitor center or swim at Cascade Falls, which is 71°F (22°C) all year, 11 miles south on US 71.
Hyped for hundreds of miles, Wall Drug is a surprisingly enjoyable stop. It really does have 5¢ coffee, free ice water, good donuts and enough diversions and come-ons to warm the heart of schlock-lovers everywhere. But amid the fudge in the faux frontier complex is a superb bookstore with a great selection of regional titles.
One of the most appealing towns up in the hills, Hill City (www.hillcitysd.com) is less frenzied than places such as Keystone. Its main drag has cafes and galleries. 1880 Train is a classic steam train running through rugged country to and from Keystone. A train museum is next door.
Jewel Cave National Monument
Another of the Black Hills' many fascinating caves is Jewel Cave, 13 miles west of Custer on US 16, so named because calcite crystals line nearly all of its walls. Currently 145 miles have been surveyed, making it the second-longest known cave in the world, but it is presumed to be the longest. Tours range in length and difficulty and are offered on a first-come basis.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
In the 1960s and 1970s, 450 Minutemen II intercontinental ballistic missiles, always at the ready in underground silos, were just 30 minutes from their targets in the Soviet Union. The missiles have since been retired (more modern ones still lurk in silos across the northern Great Plains).