Last month South Dakota Tourism sent my mom and I on a mission to explore South Dakota. We found ourselves hundreds of feet in the air on a hot air balloon ride, spotting all kinds of wildlife on the trails, and getting rained on in one of the most out-of-this-world landscapes I have ever seen. Check out this list of our top 5 favorite activities in South Dakota.
Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride at Sunrise
Getting to experience silently floating through the sky as the sun illuminated the frost on the ground below is one of the best memories of my life. South Dakota Tourism asked if I wanted to go on a hot air balloon ride with Black Hills Balloons, and I immediately responded, yes.
My mom was coming along, and it was a dream coming full circle. You see, about 10 years ago my mom and I drove 3 hours to a tiny town in Kansas for a hot air balloon festival we discovered was through the local newspaper. We arrived too late to see the balloons, but we still had a great time enjoying the town and talking to balloonists. Ever since then we’ve wanted to ride in a hot air balloon together.
So a decade later when the opportunity landed in our laps, I was thrilled. We had a gorgeous view of Custer, South Dakota and even spotted some elk running through the forest below. The experience was perfect and I especially loved the ballooning story our guide told at the end, along with a mimosa toast.
Hike Black Elk Peak
This beautiful hunk of granite, located in the Black Hills National Forest, is the tallest peak in South Dakota (7,242 ft.) and the highest peak in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains.
We started the hike at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park and hiked 3.8 miles to the summit. The trail has stunning views the entire time and we were fortune enough to experience sunset during our hike.
There was wildlife, snow, and gorgeous fall colors during our outing this time, but my mom and I had previously hiked the peak 15 years earlier in the summer with the rest of my family. Afterward we spent the rest of the day swimming in Sylvan Lake.
Whatever time of year you make the trek, it’s worth it to see gorgeous views of the area in every direction.
Photograph the Badlands
When you enter Badlands National Park it is really like entering another planet. The park is out in the middle of nowhere and as you drive in the landscape changes to something that more closely resembles the moon than anything else on Earth.
Hiking through the unique desert landscape is a special experience and my mom and I found ourselves ooohhhing and ahhhhing with every turn of a corner. We woke up for a sunrise hike and when the rain cleared the lighting was truly special. I can’t wait to go back in search of clear night skies in order to photograph this stars in this ethereal place.
Explore the waterfalls of Spearfish Canyon
My mom and I only had the afternoon to enjoy a couple hikes in Spearfish Canyon, and luckily there were some close by. First we enjoyed a beautiful nature trail that took us to Roughlock Falls, just a mile away from the lodge we were staying at. The waterfall flowed over terrain that was surrounded by beautiful fall colors.
Next, when we arrived back a the lodge we walked across the street to Little Spearfish Falls Nature Trail. You can see the top of the falls from the beginning of the hike, but it’s worth it to walk the ¾ mile to see this 47 ft. waterfall in all its glory. The path was easy and a perfect way to cap off our trip.
Drive the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park
What didn’t we see along this amazing loop? The drive started off with us enjoying the scenery and the fall colors. Soon we ran into a bison traffic jam as the animals were crossing the road to head to a nearby watering hole.
Once we made it past them we continued up the hill and we were able to see them arriving at the watering hole from afar. After that we saw mountain goats, pronghorn, elk, prairie dogs, and plenty of deer. Make sure you have one person spotting the wildlife and one paying attention to the road!
Bonus Activity: Leaf peeping along the Cheyenne River in the fall
This post brought to you by South Dakota Tourism
Kat Carney is an outdoor adventure photographer. She loves surfing, climbing, canyoneering, and mountaineering, and can often be found wandering around both the east and west coasts in her built out suburban. See her adventure wedding portfolio at www.swellandstone.com.