Two women standing facing a waterfall.

photos and words by Kat Carney; pictured above: Spearfish Falls. Sponsored by South Dakota Tourism ::

South Dakota may be one of the last places that comes to mind when talking about outdoor adventure. When my mom and I set out on a three-day tour of South Dakota in the fall, I didn’t know what to expect.

It turns out there is plenty of adventure in the Mount Rushmore State. The landscape is diverse, ranging from wild desert formations that look extraterrestrial, to lush, roaring waterfalls and big granite peaks.

A long exposure nighttime shot of stars.

And if you’re looking for ease of access, all this can all be found within a couple of hours’ drive from Rapid City.

Explore Badlands National Park

Women hiking in Badlands National Park.

Our first stop was Badlands National Park. As we drove into the park’s barren vastness, it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. However, for all of the desolation, the Badlands are a geologic wonderland, with butte, mesa, and hoodoo formations rising up from the horizon.

We checked into our cabin at the park’s Cedar Pass Lodge and walked to one of the only dinner spots in town, the Wagon Wheel Bar & Grill. Here, we felt like we stepped into an old western movie. Country music played as a group of cowboys roosted at the restaurant’s bar.

We wanted to catch the morning or evening light in the Badlands, so the next morning we woke up for sunrise. While it was overcast, the clouds did part here and there and made for dramatic light over the great landscape. We hiked the Cliff Shelf Nature trail, followed by parts of the Notch Trail and the Window Trail. Each trail goes through unique landscape formations and provides a slightly different view of the alien landscape.

Hike the tallest North American peak east of the Rockies

Woman standing on rocks in Custer State Park.

When we arrived in Custer State Park, we drove through the wildlife loop, where bison and and mountain goats lined the road. F