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. From there, we took the scenic Needles Highway to our next destination: Black Elk Peak. About 15 years ago, my family hiked this peak on a vacation to the Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park. My mom decided we needed to tackle it again, even though it was the off-season.

Black Elk Peak is the highest point in South Dakota at 7,242 ft. and the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains in North America. Since we spent the morning exploring the Badlands, we got a late start up Black Elk Peak, arriving at the trailhead at 3 p.m. We were surrounded by fresh snow and elk which were grazing just off-trail.

A mountain goat

A deer with antlers.

Nearly four miles later we reached the top and were greeted by spectacular light. We stayed here, enjoying the sight, until the light faded.  

As the sun set, we headed down. Although hikers we passed on our way up had warned us about the waning daylight, it was nearly a full moon that night. We watched it rise over the granite peak, realizing we didn’t need our headlamps; the full moon lit our path down.

Go waterfall hunting in Spearfish Canyon

A woman on a trail between trees.

Our final leg of the trip took us to the Spearfish Canyon Lodge in the Black Hills. Two waterfalls, Roughlock Falls and Spearfish Falls [pictured in the article header], are within a mile of this lodge.

We set out on the mile-long trail to Roughlock Falls. The viewing platforms on the trail gave us the opportunity to stop and catch glimpses of the clear water as we walked toward the multi-tiered falls.

Although the top of Spearfish Falls can be seen from a spot next to the lodge, we needed to follow a .75-mile (one-way) trail to the base to really experience its size and grandeur. The trail took us along an easy path through a forest. We saw only one other group — even though we were very close to the lodge — giving us a real sense of solitude. When we reached the top of the trail again we were able to watch the sun set behind the thousand-foot limestone canyon walls. It was the perfect way to cap our mother-daughter South Dakota adventure.

. . .

Our short time in the state wasn’t enough time to get every activity or sight in. As we drove away, my mom began making plans for a return trip with my dad. When I return, I plan to take my climbing gear to the Needles and check out Wind Cave National Park. South Dakota has so much adventure to offer within its landscapes; I look forward to returning so I can uncover even more.

A long exposure nighttime shot with rocks.