South Dakota’s Black Hills, in the southwestern part of the state, epitomize the idea of the American West. Rolling, grass-covered plains, buffalo munching on grass, herds of ambling black cattle, craggy rock formations that predate human existence — it’s all there. So many pass through this area while traversing Route 90 cross-country, but some stop only for only a few minutes. If you’re staying overnight — and you should — or you’re passing through during the wee hours of the morning, or at sunset, here are some places worth pulling over for — and pulling out your camera.
1. Sunrise at Door and Window Trails, Badlands National Park
On the 100th anniversary of America’s national parks, it seems more relevant than ever to pay homage to the classic, and otherworldly landscape of the Badlands. In geological terms, the park’s craggy peaks and valleys are a kind of endangered species. That is, they naturally erode at an accelerated rate of about one centimeter a year. They’ll be gone entirely in 500,000, but you still have plenty of time to enjoy them before that happens. See the park at its most stunning at the head of the Door and Window trails, which is located near the southeast, or Interior, entrance to the park — so named because it’s located by the town of Interior. Arrive well before sunrise so you can watch the sun illuminate the rock formations, which carry the stripes of 75 million years of sediment. The rocks turn a brilliant orange when the early morning sun hits them. Clearly marked trails and boardwalks give you plenty of vantage points to view the show.
2. Sunrise at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial
Seeing Mt. Rushmore at sunrise doesn’t just provide an opportunity to see this national memorial at its most beautiful; it also gives you a chance to view it when crowds are at a minimum, or nonexistent — if you can get up that early. Watch from the wide observation desk as the rocks turn from milky white to blazing pink when the sun rises. Then, as the sun continues to move higher in the sky — and park facilities begin to open for the day at 8:00 a.m. — walk the short Presidential Trail, which brings you closer to the stark, enormous faces of four American presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Take a few minutes to stop at the artist’s studio along the trail, which displays a scale model of the sculpture as it was originally envisioned. For those looking for full immersion into the Mt. Rushmore experience, stop by the cafeteria for a no-frills but hearty breakfast, and of course visit the enormous gift shop. The best part? You’ll be gone before the tour busses arrive, and your only company will likely be a sleep-averse photographer or two — and the herds of fluffy white mountain goats that make the area their home.
3. Sunset at Pinnacles Overlook, Badlands National Park
If the Door and Window trailheads give a sense of the Badlands’ long geological history, Pinnacles Overlook will show you the park’s incredible scale. This spot, which lets you view rock formations, plus miles of rolling grassland, is near the park’s North Entrance, and the town of Wall. Location here is key. You can spend the night in Wall at the charming, and ultra-affordable Frontier Cabins, and easily make an obligatory stop at Wall Drug before or after you do some sunset gawking. Pinnacles Overlook itself, though, is the real attraction. You’ll see the classic rock spires, but also the grasslands that are home to white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, and buffalo. On the evening we visited, a lone buffalo bull, separated from his herd, munched grass on a faraway mesa.