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7 Monumental Charms of South Dakota

South Dakota. As an Ohio gal, I can imagine how South Dakotan’s feel when their state is stereotyped outside its boundaries. Unbearable winters, endless flat land, cows, etc. Our states don’t exactly bring majestic mountains and pristine beaches to mind. South Dakota’s state motto is “Under God the People Rule,” and while doing laundry in Wall, SD, I saw a sign reading:

Eat Beef. The West wasn’t won on salads.

Not exactly vegan friendly either, but I did find plenty of mashed potatoes and green beans. All teasing aside, Andres and I found monumental charm in the details of a state misunderstood by many. We spent our first week in South Dakota exploring Wind Cave National Park where a number of features captured our collective imagination.

1. Mt. Rushmore: just north of Wind Cave.

A little detour revealed the first of these charms: Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills mountain range. It’s certainly the largest piece of artwork we’ve encountered on this quest. Though we also encountered monumental crowds here, we were truly impressed with this National Monument and the sheer skill, manpower and creativity employed to bring four of our greatest presidents to life.

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We were one of the first visitors to admire Mt. Rushmore, but by the time we left three hours later (around 10 AM), the monumental crowds were thick. Go early!

2. Vistas.

South Dakota can definitely compete with Montana’s nickname Big Sky Country. The caress of clouds against the sky seemed to change with every breath. Never have I seen a sky painted so frequently with rain and sunshine at the same time, surprising the eye with rainbows on wide horizons.

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3. Wind Cave, a secret beneath the vistas.

The humble plains hide one of the most expansive caves known to man. We joined a cave tour to hike a couple of hours through incredible boxwork formations. A whole new world exists beneath the surface, where Nature has sculpted with a delicate hand.

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4. Sleeping beneath the stars. 

Summertime brings the evening to life with sounds of the night, from bison calling in the distance to coyotes howling up a storm. The summertime night is refreshing and inspiring, where unseen stars break through the barrier of light pollution seen in most other places.

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5. Wildflowers.

It’s easy to wander into the open prairie that hugs the surface of Wind Cave and let your fingers brush through tall grass dotted with wildflowers. We hiked five miles of the Centennial Trail which stretches over 100 miles across South Dakota and intersects with the park. The idyllic section we hiked followed along a babbling brook where ancient rock formations rose amid the thick summer vegetation.
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6. Wildlife.  

The small size of Wind Cave makes it easy to spot bison relaxing in a field or trekking along a roadway. We witnessed the bison rut – when bulls display their dominance and prepare for breedings, typically between July and August – so that was a unique experience. Prairie dogs also make their abundant presences known in the park, but there are many other unique species to look out for.

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Here, a bull grunts and bellows as he stays by the side of a female bison. They will likely mate once she is ready.

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Domesticated animals like longhorn cattle range the lands.
Domesticated animals like longhorn cattle range the lands.

7. Wild West Charm.  

South Dakota stands out as a gateway state to the wild west. Its history is woven with rich stories of Native Americans, settlers, and America’s quest for the west. Most of the small towns have a western vibe, some well maintained, and some completely forlorn. You can find ghost towns complete with skulls, worn buildings, and tumbleweeds.

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Scenic, South Dakota.

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