I am a road warrior by nature and it was on such a journey, drifting east across the plains of Colorado and north through the sandhills of Nebraska, that I crossed the state line into South Dakota for the first time. I’d come to see Mount Rushmore , one of America’s most recognizable monuments. Carved into the side of a mountain, four U.S. presidents gaze placidly over the hills, over the pine forest and into the distance of the vast plains to the south. I came to see Mount Rushmore and discovered the breathtaking beauty of the Black Hills.
The change from plains to hills is a subtle one. Miles of flatland transform into rolling swells of sparsely covered sand. One sharp incline and the view to the south is suddenly vast, empty, and as calming as staring out to sea. To the north, the soft hills are covered in dark ponderosa pine, the canyons are red, and the sky is an azure blue.
This edge — this meeting of two worlds, the best of everything — is what the hills are all about. Farmland turns into ranchland here. Warm springs flow into cold rivers. Eastern birds and western birds mingle. Just 100 miles from north to south, and 65 miles from east to west, this “Island in the Plains” offers a remarkable diversity of landscape, wildlife, history, and recreation.
The broad western horizons and plains vistas create a space where storms are visible for miles before they arrive. Lightning streaks sideways across the sky and rain falls but never reaches the earth. Electric summer afternoon clouds crack open and pour white beads of hail over the grasslands, striking with just enough power to release the prairie scent of sage.
This is not a harsh country, though. The Black Hills are old and round and soft. Home to the American bison, this is a land sacred to Native Americans. Its history is steeped in gold, greed, gambling, gunfights, and broken treaties. It is a land of homesteading and healing waters.
Bestowed with great natural beauty, it has always been a beloved road trip destination. Remnants of the 1950s love affair with the automobile remain. Look for old hotels and diners that sport neon signs with names like the Rocket Motel . Roadside attractions abound. Pan for gold, visit a vineyard, pet wild burros, or watch a rodeo. Bike, boat, ride a horse, or explore a cave. Hike the highest peak in North America east of the Rocky Mountains, or relax in the warm springs of a spa town. It’s all here.